Maliki leads in Iraq vote
Baghdad - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bid to retain his job picked up steam on Saturday, as early results put him ahead in the key Baghdad constituency and his bloc took its first steps toward forming a government.
While the preliminary figures represent less than one-third of all votes cast, they have put Maliki firmly in pole position in the race for the top job, with only ex-premier Iyad Allawi having emerged as a potential rival.
With 18% of ballots counted in Baghdad, Maliki's State of Law Alliance was comfortably ahead with around 150 000 votes, followed by the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition led by Shiite religious parties, with 108,000. Allawi's secular Iraqiya bloc was third on 105 000.
Baghdad accounts for 70 parliamentary seats, or more than one-fifth of the 325-member Council of Representatives, making it a crucial win for any would-be government.
News of Maliki's lead in Baghdad came shortly after a senior member of his coalition said State of Law had formed a committee to begin negotiating with rival blocs to form a government.
"The State of Law Alliance has formed a small committee of five members," Abbas al-Bayati, a candidate for the coalition, said.
"The committee met with representatives of four political entities that made progress in the elections."
He declined to name any of the members of the committee or which blocs State of Law had held talks with.
Bayati added that State of Law believed that Maliki should retain his post as prime minister.
Preliminary results from the March 7 polls released since Thursday have put Maliki's coalition in the lead in the predominantly Shiite southern provinces of Najaf, Babil, Karbala and Muthanna.
Allawi's secular Iraqiya alliance was ahead in the mostly Sunni provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin, while the INA was in pole position in Shiite Maysan.
The Kurdistania alliance, made up of the two long-dominant blocs in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, was leading in Arbil province there.
Complete results are expected on March 18 and the final ones - after any appeals are dealt with - will likely come at the end of the month.
Analysts have predicted protracted coalition building, as no single grouping is expected to win the 163 seats necessary to form a government on its own.
Iraqiya has alleged "flagrant fraud" took place during the election, but those complaints were described as "exaggerated" by State of Law.
An IHEC official has said the claims of fraud were either politically motivated or fuelled by a misunderstanding of the counting procedures, but said they would nevertheless be investigated.