By LARA JAKES and REBECCA SANTANA Associated Press Writers © 2010 The Associated Press
March 12, 2010, 2:52PM
BAGHDAD — Seizing on an early lead in Iraq's election, the prime minister's political coalition began reaching out to rivals Friday as partial results signaled a tight race that was unlikely to produce a clear-cut winner.
It's doubtful that Nouri al-Maliki — even if he keeps his job — will be able to build a seamless government from political parties separated by sectarian fault lines and Shiite rivalries.
That would mean more political instability as American forces prepare to withdraw and further setbacks to efforts to reconcile Iraq's fractured ethnic and sectarian communities.
The count for all of Iraq's 18 provinces, including all-important Baghdad, was not expected for days and the outcome of the March 7 parliamentary vote was far from certain. Election officials said they have been struggling with malfunctions such as computers crashing and employees working too slowly.
The process also has been marred by fraud allegations, many of which came from one of the Shiite prime minister's main challengers, a secular Iraqiya list led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
But the nation's Independent High Electoral Commission has released partial results from seven provinces that showed al-Maliki's bloc leading in three, ahead of Allawi's group, which was winning in two, and an Iran-backed Shiite religious grouping in another.
The Kurdish Alliance, as expected, won Irbil province in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north.
After all the returns are in, if no bloc wins a majority, the president would ask the bloc with the largest number of seats in parliament to form a coalition government.
Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition — which he formed after breaking with longtime Shiite power broker the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, also known as SIIC — was emboldened enough by strong showings in Babil, Najaf and Muthanna provinces to pursue a rapprochement with rivals he may need to build a new government.
"The initial results of elections indicated our progress ... and we can form a government by allying with two or three coalitions," Abbas al-Bayati, a senior lawmaker in the coalition, said Friday.
The group has set up a committee to "open dialogue with other blocs," al-Bayati said.
Among the meetings being scheduled is one with the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious coalition made up of SIIC and followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to an al-Maliki adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicate nature of the talks as votes are still being counted.
It was a calculated if possibly premature outlook for a prime minister who has been dogged not only by Shiite fundamentalists whose coalition he abandoned to build a more moderate platform, but also by Sunnis and Kurds who revile his policies.
A State of Law victory is far from assured. Allawi's Iraqiya alliance, made up of moderate Shiites and Sunnis, was leading in the former insurgent strongholds of Salahuddin and Diyala. And the INA had the lead over al-Maliki in Maysan province, which borders Iran.
Each province receives a certain amount of parliament seats, which will be supplemented by quotas for women and minorities. The ultimate winner will likely be determined with results in Baghdad, which will have 70 seats, or about a fifth of the parliament. It was not clear Friday when the Baghdad results would be released.
Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's representative expressed frustration with the chaotic and prolonged process.
"We wish that the electoral commission would complete the counting process with professionalism and away from any suspicions in order to avoid complaints from political blocs and so that the parliament is formed as soon as possible," Abdul-Mahdi al-Kerbalai said during a Friday sermon in Karbala.
Even if State of Law prevails, followers of Iraqi politics say al-Maliki has so alienated members of his own party that he may be replaced as prime minister. One name being floated was Mohammed Jafar al-Sadr, a cousin of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who's considered a moderate Shiite but is still more conservative than al-Maliki.
"Even if al-Maliki manages to pull a government together it's going to be very unstable," said Abdul-Khaleq Abdulla, a political science professor at Emirates University in Abu Dhabi. "He is on very shaky ground."
Most daunting for al-Maliki would be trying to reconcile with Allawi — especially after a government-ordered ballot purge of more than 440 candidates that was widely viewed as targeting Iraqiya and undermining its chances of winning.
Many of the banned candidates were Sunni, prompting numerous Sunni political leaders to disavow support for an al-Maliki-led government.
Rend al-Rahim, a candidate with Iraqiya, said Friday that the group had filed 32 complaints with election officials as of Thursday night. She said concerns included completed ballots that had been found in the garbage and the failure of some provincial ballot boxes to be delivered to the counting center in Baghdad.
Kurds, who are expected to be crucial to forming any government, aren't likely to make it easy on al-Maliki either. The Kurdish government has been fighting with Baghdad over the right to drill oil in their autonomous region and over the fate of disputed and oil-rich land in the north that both sides claim as their territory.
Still, one Kurdish lawmaker suggested his alliance was keeping its options open as the power-sharing game begins — a recurring theme in Iraqi politics where political opponents one day can be allies the next.
"We as the Kurdish alliance represent the balancing factor among other blocs in creating the new government," Kurdish lawmaker Hakim Firhad Rasool said in an interview. "A government could not be formed without Kurdish participation. We are close to all, and we will start negotiating as soon as results are announced."
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.