March 16, 2010 - 8:13AM
Iraqi Premier Nuri al-Maliki tightened his grip on key Baghdad province, updated election results showed on Monday, making it increasingly likely his bloc will form parliament's single biggest grouping.
His success in the capital, which accounts for more than twice as many seats as any other province, builds on his lead in seven provinces overall, and is a major boost for his bid to retain the top job.
Maliki's main rival, secular ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, leads in five provinces, although all the results figures remain incomplete.
Meanwhile, a suicide bombing west of Baghdad on Monday, the first such attack since the March 7 polls, killed eight people and highlighted the security concerns that still plague the country.
The results from the election -- the second since Saddam Hussein was ousted in the US-led invasion of 2003 -- come less than six months before the United States is set to withdraw all of its combat troops from the country.
Preliminary results, based on 60 per cent of ballots counted, showed Maliki's State of Law Alliance held a 65,000-vote lead over Allawi's Iraqiya bloc with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition of Shi'ite religious groups, a distant third.
Earlier results released on Saturday for Baghdad put Maliki's lead at 50,000 votes over the two blocs, which were neck-and-neck at the time.
Maliki, a Shi'ite who has sought to portray himself as the leader who restored Iraq's security, also holds comfortable leads in the southern oil-rich province of Basra, the third biggest in Iraq, and the central province of Karbala.
State of Law is also ahead in Babil, Najaf, Wasit and Muthanna, four other southern Shi'ite provinces.
Despite State of Law's success, however, analysts have cautioned that rival political groupings could still manoeuvre to form a coalition government without it.
While State of Law has said it has established a committee to enter talks with blocs to put together a government, Intisar Allawi, a senior Iraqiya candidate, said on Monday it had held its own talks with the INA and the main Kurdish bloc, which she described as "very good and positive".
Iraq's proportional representation system makes it unlikely that any single group will clinch the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own, and protracted coalition building is likely.
Opposition groups have alleged fraud in the election and the count, but Maliki dismissed the complaints as "very small" in nature, in televised remarks to Iraq's National Security Council broadcast late on Sunday.
The television appearance was Maliki's first since the election and came after his office announced on Thursday that he had undergone surgery in a Baghdad hospital for an unspecified ailment.
Election officials have also downplayed charges of fraud.
Faraj al-Haidari, head of the national election commission, told reporters the number of complaints in the general election was less than half those filed during provincial polls in January 2009.
Figures released on Monday showed Allawi, a Shi'ite Arab like Maliki, narrowly ahead in the northern oil province of Kirkuk, defying predictions of a win for the Kurdish bloc which wants to incorporate Kirkuk into autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the north.
Iraqiya is also leading in Nineveh, Iraq's second-largest province around the main northern city of Mosul, as well as western Anbar province and Diyala and Salaheddin in central Iraq. All are predominantly Sunni.
The INA is ahead in the Shi'ite southern provinces of Maysan, Diwaniyah and Dhi Qar.
Elsewhere, figures showed Kurdistania, an alliance of the two main Kurdish former rebel factions, ahead in all three of Kurdistan's provinces.
Complete election results are expected on March 18 and the final tally -- after any appeals are ruled on -- is likely to follow at the end of the month.
Security officials have expressed concern that a lengthy period of coalition building could give insurgent groups and al-Qaeda an opportunity to further destabilise Iraq.
Their concerns were illustrated when a double-blast suicide bomber targeting a military checkpoint and labourers killed eight people and wounded 28 other civilians on Monday, in Fallujah, in Anbar province.