Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki edged ahead Sunday in a tight race in the country's parliamentary elections after partial results from all of Iraq's 18 provinces showed his bloc leading in seven - two more than his chief rival.
The early tally strengthens al-Maliki's chances of retaining the prime minister's post, although he is unlikely to win a majority necessary to govern alone. Instead, the narrow race could lead to months of political wrangling as leaders try to cobble together a coalition government that will rule as American forces leave Iraq in 2011.
The March 7 vote was Iraq's second for a full-term government since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
According to the partial count from all of Iraq's 18 provinces released by the country's electoral commission, al-Maliki's State of Law coalition leads in seven provinces.
His closest challenger, the secular Iraqiya bloc led former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, leads in five provinces, while the religious Shiite Iraqi National Alliance and the main Kurdish coalition each lead in three.
The results were based on partial vote counts released over the past three days, with the percentage of polling stations counted in each province ranging from 10 to 67 percent.
In his first public appearance since minor surgery Wednesday, a confident looking al-Maliki praised Iraqis Sunday for defying those who used violence to try to keep them from the polls, saying "the Iraqi people can not be intimidated."
Insurgent attacks had.
On Sunday, partial results came in for the remaining seven provinces that had yet reported results.
Al-Maliki's coalition was ahead in the key, oil-rich province of Basra - home to Iraq's second largest city and the center of the country's oil industry. With about 63 percent of the Basra votes counted, al-Maliki's group appeared a definitive winner, nearly 100,000 votes ahead of his closest competitor, the INA.
Al-Maliki was also in front Sunday in Wasit province.
But the biggest boost so far for al-Maliki came Saturday, when initial results released from Baghdad voting showed him ahead in the all-important capital, which carries 70 seats in the 325-seat assembly.
Allawi held a surprise lead of around 3,000 votes over a Kurdish alliance in partial results released Sunday from the northern, oil-rich province of Tamim. The province is home to the disputed city of Kirkuk, which is hotly contested among its Kurdish, Arab and Turkomen population.
The margin was based on 61 percent returns.
Allawi picked up another province, the Sunni stronghold of Anbar in western Iraq, winning nearly 100,000 votes more than his closest competitor, the Sunni coalition Iraqi Accordance.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, has been drawing on heavy Sunni support in his campaign, attracting Sunni voters frustrated with their own leaders who are also attracted to Allawi's nonsectarian stance and anti-Iran rhetoric.
But the Kurds faired better in their stronghold in northern Iraq. The Kurdish Alliance was ahead in Dahuk, where 55 percent of the votes had been counted, and in Sulaimaniyah, with 63 percent of the vote tallied.
The INA was in front Sunday in Dhi Qar province, where 58 percent of the votes have been counted so far. The Shiite religious bloc with ties to Iran had about 120,000 votes to al-Maliki's 114,000.
Election officials have been widely criticized for releasing votes piecemeal. The results are being shown on TV screens at the electoral commission's headquarters.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for a triple bombing on March 3 in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, that killed at least 32 people.
It said two suicide bombers targeted military and police headquarters and the third was waiting for the wounded at the hospital, where he detonated his explosive belt.
The group, which includes al Qaeda in Iraq and other allied Sunni insurgent factions, posted the claim Saturday on a site frequently used by Islamic militants. The claim could not be independently verified, but the group has used such Web sites in the past to take responsibility for attacks.