Iraq race neck-and-neck
Baghdad - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and main rival Iyad Allawi were neck-and-neck on Thursday, with updated results showing their blocs in a tight race to be the largest faction in the Iraqi parliament.
Maliki's State of Law Alliance led Allawi's Iraqiya list by just 40 000 votes nationwide, according to updated results based on 83% of ballots counted, as the incumbent's bloc alleged fraud and demanded a recount.
But Iraqiya was on pace to garner 90 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives compared with State of Law's 89, according to a calculation that excludes eight seats reserved for minorities.
Ballots cast outside Iraq and during special voting for the security forces, the sick and prisoners have not yet been fully tabulated by Iraq's electoral commission and could still affect the outcome.
The election, the second since Saddam Hussein was ousted in the US-led invasion of 2003, comes less than six months before the United States is set to withdraw all of its combat troops from Iraq.
An ally of Maliki charged on Wednesday that the count, which has so far taken 10 days, had been plagued by widespread fraud and demanded a nationwide recount.
"There has been clear manipulation inside the election commission in the interests of a certain or a specific list," said Ali al-Adeeb, a State of Law candidate in the predominantly Shi'ite central province of Karbala.
"State of Law demands the counting process be repeated to be sure that there has been no manipulation."
Adeeb described Iraqiya's progress as "like a miracle".
His remarks were a sharp departure from Maliki's own just days earlier, when he dismissed allegations of fraud as "very small".
Electoral official Iyad al-Kinaani downplayed any allegations of fraud, saying the commission's work was "transparent and is done with great care because we know the importance of this step".
Maliki leading in Baghdad
Overall, Maliki held a slim lead in the count, with 2 260 483 votes against 2 220 443 for Iraqiya. Results released late on Tuesday had put Allawi ahead by less than 9 000 votes.
State of Law leads in Baghdad, which is the largest province and accounts for more than twice as many seats as any other.
It is also ahead in the southern oil province of Basra, the third biggest, as well as five other mostly Shi'ite central and southern provinces, but has failed to finish in the top three in all but one of Iraq's Sunni-majority provinces.
Iraqiya, on the other hand, was leading in four provinces, including the second biggest, Nineveh. It was also in a virtual tie for the lead in a fifth, Kirkuk, where it was ahead of a Kurdish bloc by about 600 votes.
It was placed in the top three in six predominantly Shi'ite provinces where Maliki was either first or second.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by Shi'ite religious groups, is set to come in third with 69 seats, according to calculations, while Kurdistania, comprised of the autonomous Kurdish region's two long-dominant parties, is likely to have 39.
No other group is set to win more than 10 seats.
Coalition talks expected
Both State of Law and Iraqiya have said they have begun talks with rival blocs to form a government, with analysts warning that political groupings could still manoeuvre to form a coalition without either list.
Iraq's system of proportional representation makes it unlikely for any single group to clinch the 163 seats required to form a government on its own. Protracted coalition building is expected.
Complete election results were expected around Thursday. Final results - after all complaints have been investigated and ruled upon - are likely by the end of the month.