Early estimates from a range of Iraqi parties on Monday predicted a coalition led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would take the lead in the parliamentary election, though official results were not expected for a few days.
A win by al-Maliki could signal Iraqis' rejection of the religious parties that have dominated the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The prime minister has been trying to distance himself from his party's religious roots and portray himself as more of a nationalist.
Sunday's voting was the latest test of Iraq's fragile democracy and will determine whether the country can overcome the deep sectarian divides that have plagued it for the past seven years.
Turnout for Iraq's second election for a full parliamentary term was 62 percent of about 19 million eligible voters, the election commission said. That is lower than the last full parliamentary election in December 2005, in which roughly 76 percent of eligible voters turned out.
Officials attributed the drop to a combination of voter intimidation, more stringent ID requirements at the polls and a drop in voter excitement. A spate of attacks on election day - some directly on voters and polling stations - killed 36 people.
The election commission said at a news conference that initial results for some provinces as well Baghdad - an area key to determining any winner - will be announced Tuesday. But full results are not expected for a few more days.
But officials of the various parties were present during regional vote counts after the polls closed Sunday, giving them a sense of where the race is heading.
Abbas al-Bayati from al-Maliki's State of Law coalition said early information from the coalition's representatives showed the list did well in Baghdad and in the Shiite south. Baghdad accounts for 70 seats in the parliament. But one seat is mandated as Christian and another for minorities, meaning 68 are up for grabs.
Regional officials in other parties who observed local vote counts also acknowledged that al-Maliki had done the best, although they spoke anonymously because official results had not yet been announced. An official from a competing Shiite party opposing al-Maliki said the State of Law coalition appeared to be in the lead. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Support for al-Maliki could suggest voters pulling away from Shiite religious parties out of frustration over a failure to deliver services to citizens. Although he comes from the religious Shiite Dawa party, al-Maliki has campaigned as a nonsectarian leader capable of ensuring the country's security.
The results are likely to produce three other main blocs. Following al-Maliki's coalition are expected to be the former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya alliance and the religious Shiite Iraqi National Alliance. It is not clear which of those two will come out ahead.
Allawi is fierce critic of al-Maliki who has said the government needs to do more to bring about reconciliation between the country's warring sects. His coalition includes a number of high-profile Sunni candidates, and party officials said their list had done well in a number of Sunni regions, such as Anbar.
Another key bloc is the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes supporters of the popular anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, who is believed to have spent the last two years in Iran, implored his supporters to vote, calling it "political resistance."
Key to any political coalition will be Kurdish support. While the Kurds aren't expected to form the government in this Shiite-majority country, their political unity means it's almost impossible for any one coalition to build a government without them.
But even officials from al-Maliki's State of Law acknowledged that they did not have enough seats to form an outright majority, meaning they would have to work with other coalitions to form a government, a tough task considering al-Maliki's fractured relations with opposing political parties.
By all accounts, a small number of seats are expected to separate the first and second place blocs, which could further complicate and prolong the political wrangling required to form a government.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that individuals from any bloc can cross party lines to join another coalition, meaning whoever wins the most seats and is tasked with coming up with a government can try to pick and choose people willing to cross party and coalition lines.
Also on Monday, election officials said only about 272,000 Iraqis outside of the country had voted, far fewer than some estimates had projected. The largest number were in Syria, where 42,000 Iraqis voted. The out-of-country voting was believed to be especially important for Sunnis, because many of the Iraqis living in neighboring Syria and Jordan are believed to be Sunnis who fled the fighting.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)