Iraq PM bolsters chances of retaining post

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's chances of retaining his post appeared strong on Monday, more than a week after a general election that has seen his bloc claim leads in several key Iraqi provinces.

Preliminary results have put Maliki's State of Law Alliance in pole position in two of Iraq's three biggest provinces, with the bloc ahead in seven of the 18 provinces overall, although the figures were far from complete.

The results from the March 7 election -- the second since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003 -- come less than six months before the United States is set to withdraw all of its combat troops from the country.

Initial figures published on Sunday showed Maliki, a Shiite who has sought to portray himself as a leader who restored Iraq's security, with comfortable leads in the oil-rich province of Basra, the third largest, and Karbala.

Both southern provinces are mostly Shiite.

State of Law was already ahead in Baghdad, whose 70 seats account for more than a fifth of Iraq's 325-member Council of Representatives, as well as in Babil, Najaf, Wasit and Muthanna.

The latter four provinces are all southern predominantly Shiite areas.

Opposition blocs have alleged fraud in the election and ensuing count of ballot papers, but Maliki has dismissed these claims, describing complaints as being "very small" in nature.

"The complaints... cannot affect the results," he told Iraq's National Security Council in remarks broadcast on television late on Sunday.

The television appearance was Maliki's first since the election and since his office announced on Thursday the premier had undergone surgery in a Baghdad hospital for an unspecified ailment.

Election officials also downplayed charges of fraud.

Faraj al-Haidari, who heads the national election commission, told reporters the number of complaints in the election was less than half that of provincial polls in January last year.

The electoral commission has pleaded for patience as vote tabulation has been slowed by persistent computer crashes, which again affected work on Sunday.

Meanwhile, separate sets of figures released on Sunday showed secular ex-premier Iyad Allawi, a Shiite like Maliki, ahead in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk, against the expectations of analysts who had predicted it would probably be won by a Kurdish bloc.

Sunday's results also showed Allawi ahead in the Sunni bastion of Anbar, Iraq's largest province geographically and the centre of a bloody insurgency in the early years of the US-led occupation.

That brought to five the number of provinces in which Allawi's Iraqiya bloc was ahead. He also leads in Nineveh, Iraq's second largest province, and the predominantly Sunni central provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by Shiite religious groups, was ahead in the Shiite southern provinces of Maysan, Diwaniyah and Dhi Qar.

Elsewhere, figures showed Kurdistania, an alliance of the Kurdish autonomous region's two long-dominant parties, leading in the battleground province of Sulaimaniyah and Iraq's northernmost province of Dohuk.

Earlier results also put Kurdistania ahead in Arbil, seat of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.

Despite State of Law's success, however, analysts have cautioned that rival political groups could still manoeuvre to form a coalition government that excludes it.

Iraq's proportional representation electoral system makes it unlikely that any single grouping will clinch the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own, and protracted coalition building is likely.

Complete election results are expected on March 18 and the final tally -- after any appeals are ruled on -- will probably come at the end of the month.