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Early Election Results in Iraq: Too Close Too Call

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in a tight race to maintain his leadership over the Iraqi government, partial election results indicated on Thursday.

The Independent High Electoral Commission reported that al-Maliki was well ahead in the southern provinces of Babil and Najaf, two largely Shiite areas where he had been projected to do well.

But a coalition led by Ayad Allawi was in the lead in former insurgent strongholds of Diyala, an ethnically mixed area, and Salahuddin, a prominently Sunni area north of Baghdad.

Both candidates are Shiites, who are the majority in Iraq, but Allawi led a list of candidates that included many prominent Sunnis, the backbone of the deposed Saddam Hussein regime.

Candidates in the elections are running for 325 seats in the parliament, which will select the prime minister.

Before the results were made public, leaders of Allawi's Iraqiya list said they had uncovered several acts of ballot theft and random arrests of their supporters.

"We think the government is putting lots of pressure on the commission to have certain results," said Falah al-Nakaib, a candidate with the Iraqiya list.

Al-Nakaib said he has evidence that ballot boxes with hundreds of votes were stolen from a Baghdad neighborhood where Allawi is popular, and about 15 ballots cast for his list were discarded in a schoolyard in the city of Kirkuk.

He also accused officials backing al-Maliki's State of Law list of improperly entering the election commission's counting center.

The last parliamentary elections, in December 2005, were followed by months of wrangling before the naming of a prime minister.

During those months, Shiite death squads and Sunni terrorists went on a killing spree in which scores of bodies were showing up on streets every day.

The violence threatened to plunge the nation into a civil war but ended after a surge of U.S. troops arrived and a political deal was reached among the various factions in the parliament.

The United States deemed the elections a success after voting ended Sunday. Even so, both Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Christopher Hill cautioned that the weeks or even months it could take to form a new government could be a volatile time for Iraq.

Election fraud could mar the vote if it is widespread, military officials said. Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, who oversees the U.S. role in eastern Baghdad, had said before the vote that a disputed result could reignite the sectarian fighting that followed the 2005 vote.

Adnan Janabi, another Iraqiya candidate, said thousands of Iraqi servicemembers were barred from voting. He also said that three election workers were caught deleting votes cast for the Iraqiya list.

Janabi acknowledged that his party couldn't say how many votes were affected by the alleged irregularities. "One or a million, we don't know," he said.

Partial results released in the northern Kurdish province of Irbil showed the alliance of the region's two dominant Kurdish parties with a big lead.

The early results represent about a third of the votes cast in the two provinces in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south, and 17% of the votes gathered in the two northern provinces. In the south, al-Maliki's toughest competition comes from a coalition of members of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and other Shiites with close ties to Iran.

In Babil province, al-Maliki's political bloc won 42% of votes that have been counted, according to the election commission.

He won about 47% in Najaf.

Allawi won triple the number of votes of his nearest rival in both Salahuddin and Diyala.

In an interview before results were released, the No. 2 candidate on al-Maliki's list, Haider al-Ebadi, predicted that the State of Law coalition would win as many as 100 seats and that al-Maliki would remain prime minister.

Because no party is likely to win the 163 votes it will take to form a new government by itself, alliances with other lists will be necessary. "We have many choices now," al-Ebadi said. "For Allawi, it just doesn't add up."

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