13 Mar 2010 17:58:25 GMT
By Rania El Gamal and Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD, March 13 (Reuters) - Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki held a wide lead on Saturday in early results from Baghdad, the major prize in a tight election race that Iraqis hope will bring stability after years of sectarian conflict.
But partial results from 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces, representing only a small fraction of the vote, showed a contest too close to call six days after the March 7 polls and suggested weeks or months of horse-trading ahead to form a government.
Maliki's State of Law coalition is leading among three top rivals as electoral officials slowly release initial figures.
A cross-sectarian, secularist list headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is running second, and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a rival to Maliki among Iraq's Shi'ite majority, is a close third.
Politicians promised the parliamentary election would bring better governance and security as the United States prepares to end combat operations seven years after ousting Saddam Hussein.
With just 18 percent of the count completed in Baghdad, analyst Hazem al-Nuaimi cautioned against reading too much into Saturday's results. It is unclear which parts of the capital, largely segregated along sectarian lines after the killing unleashed in 2003, the early votes represent.
"It is clear that the final votes will be distributed among the blocs closely," Nuaimi said. "This means there will no winning bloc with a big margin."
Days after the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) expected to release full initial results, Maliki's coalition led in five provinces.
Allawi's Iraqiya list was ahead by wide margins in three provinces home to large numbers of minority Sunnis, eager to change the Shi'ite-led government they feel has mistreated them since 2003. The INA is ahead in two provinces in the Shi'ite south, while powerful Kurdish parties led as expected in Arbil.
Even before a clear national picture had emerged, the political manoeuvring was under way.
Mindful that minority Kurds may prove kingmakers, Allawi held talks with Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan.
"I came here to talk with the Kurdish leadership and with my brother the president. We share the same point of view for what should happen in Iraq regarding stability," Allawi said. Lawmaker Hassan al-Sunaid, a senior member of Maliki's Dawa Party, said the State of Law coalition was also talking with the Kurds and would hold discussions with other winning alliances.
"It is obvious that neither our bloc nor any other one will get the majority in this vote to form the government alone," he said. "But through alliances, a majority will be reached."
Theories abound about possible alliances, based both on vote results and on chemistry between leading figures like Maliki and Allawi. It is still too early to say whose interests may align.
The stakes are high. After 2005 polls, sectarian violence erupted as politicians took months to form a government.
As IHEC struggles to fend off criticism about the delay in early results, it is also grappling with a new, complicated voting system, a slow computer grid, intense media scrutiny and even infighting among election officials.
No vote tallies had been released so far for Basra, an important swing area among Shi'ite competitors.
While the Baghdad results lent some clarity to the political landscape, charges of fraud may yet scramble the picture.
Iraqiya has charged that ballots were dumped in the garbage, nearly a quarter of a million soldiers were denied voting rights and electoral commission workers fiddled with vote counts.
The election result is being watched closely in Washington. The Obama administration plans to halve U.S. troop strength in Iraq in the next few months, formally ending combat operations by Sept. 1 ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Continuity in a new Maliki-led government could be attractive to oil majors that signed multibillion-dollar contracts last year, part of Iraq's plan to challenge top oil producers within six years, but none of obvious candidates for the top job has suggested rescinding the contracts. (Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Muhanad Mohammed; writing by Jim Loney and Missy Ryan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)