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Al Maliki bloc gains in poll results

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki's bloc looks likely to form parliament's single largest grouping, after results show he has strengthened his hold on a key Baghdad province.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki's bloc looked likely to form parliament's single largest grouping today, after results showed the incumbent had strengthened his hold on the key Baghdad province. 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. Mr al Maliki's main rival, secular ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, leads in five provinces, with two-thirds of votes having been counted nationwide.

A suicide bombing west of Baghdad yesterday morning, the first such attack since the March 7 polls, killed eight people and highlighted security concerns still plaguing 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 Iraq. Preliminary results, based on 60 per cent of ballots counted in Baghdad, showed Mr al Maliki's State of Law Alliance held a 65,000-vote lead over Mr Allawi's Iraqiya bloc with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition of Shiite religious groups, a distant third.

Earlier results on Saturday for Baghdad put Mr al Maliki's lead at 50,000 votes over the two blocs, which were neck-and-neck at the time. Mr al Maliki, a Shiite who has sought to portray himself as the man 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 Shiite 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 form a government, Intisar Allawi, a senior Iraqiya candidate, said yesterday 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 Mr al Maliki dismissed the claims in televised remarks to Iraq's National Security Council broadcast late on Sunday, his first public appearance since his office announced on Thursday that he had undergone surgery for an unspecified ailment.

Election officials have also downplayed allegations 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 Mr Allawi, a Shiite Arab like Mr Maliki, was 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 Shiite southern provinces of Maysan, Diwaniyah and Dhi Qar, and Kurdistania, an alliance of the two main Kurdish former rebel factions, was ahead in all three of Kurdistan's provinces.

Complete election results are expected on March 18 and the final tally ? after any appeals are decided ? is likely at the end of the month. Security officials have expressed concern a lengthy period of coalition building could give insurgent groups and al Qa'eda an opportunity to further destabilise Iraq. Their worries 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.

* AFP