(Khalid Mohammed ~ Associated Press)
Partial results released by the Independent High Electoral Commission showed the State of Law coalition with about a 60,000-vote edge nationwide over its main moderate challenger, the secular Iraqiya coalition. The Shiite fundamentalist Iraqi National Alliance was in third place.
The partial Baghdad vote was released amid utter disarray in the election commission's headquarters, where the results were flashed on big-screen TVs but yanked down moments later, only to be released yet again. It was the latest in a series of blunders marring the counting process as results have trickled out slowly.
The chairman of the electoral commission, Faraj al-Haidari, said preliminary nationwide results could be released as early as today -- a full week after the vote for a 325-member parliament that will choose a prime minister to form a government that will lead the country as U.S. troops prepare to go home.
Allegations of fraud also have plagued the ballot tally. The electoral commission said more than 2,000 complaints had been received as of Saturday but it gave no specifics, saying only that they would be investigated.
With 18 percent of the ballots counted in the province that includes the capital, al-Maliki's State of Law coalition had almost 159,000 votes, followed by the Iran-backed Shiite religious grouping the Iraqi National Alliance with about 108,000 and the moderate and secular Iraqiya coalition tallying about 105,000.
Baghdad is the largest prize in the vote, with just under a fifth of the total parliament seats up for grabs.
"We have promised the people of Baghdad and Iraq that the next four years will be the phase of construction and better economy, and we will live up to our promises," Haider al-Ibadi, a senior State of Law official, said after the capital's results were announced. "And we will join forces with any other political blocs that are committed to the same agenda."
So far, al-Maliki's coalition is leading in five of the 11 provinces where the vote has been partially counted. Iraq has a total of 18 provinces.
Nationwide, State of Law has so far amassed more than 357,000 votes, and Iraqiya was trailing with 295,400 votes. The INA was in third place with just over 280,500.
Outside Baghdad, all of al-Maliki's leads are in southern provinces where Shiite hard-liners were expected to bring stiff competition. The south is generally considered friendly turf for the INA, made up of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- two groups that are linked to Iran.
U.S. officials have long worried that religious hard-liners -- especially those influenced by Iran -- would take over the still-shaky government and undo much of the progress toward making Iraq a reliable ally in the Middle East.
Hakim al-Zamili, one of the INA's Sadrist candidates, played down al-Maliki's gains and said Iraqis still "are religious and they still respect religious parties."
Even so, al-Zamili acknowledged that some voters have grown tired of fundamentalist politicians.
"We should confess that some people have turned their back on these parties because they were disappointed by the performance of inefficient officials linked to religious parties," al-Zamili said.
Al-Zamili was one of two former government officials arrested and accused of allowing Shiite death squads to use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings, although the charges were dropped two years ago.
Al-Maliki broke off from the Shiite alliance more than a year ago in an effort to win support from a broader base. If his lead holds, it will serve as another, even bigger blow to religious leaders against whom he also fared well in last year's provincial elections.
Many experts have noted the rejection of nationalist, non-religious coalitions reflects Iraqi frustration with years of sectarian fighting as well as frustration over the past four years of religious parties to improve much needed government services.
"The voters have shown that they are fed up with the religious parties that failed to improve their life," said Nabil Salim, a political-science professor at Baghdad University.
Iraqiya is led by one of al-Maliki's predecessors, former Premier Ayad Allawi, who is also Shiite. However, Iraqiya has attracted Sunnis who have similarly rejected their own religiously based politicians but remain suspicious of al-Maliki's continued, if lessened, ties to Iran.
Iraqiya officials kept up a drumbeat Saturday of fraud accusations -- including discarded ballots and the failure of some provincial ballot boxes to be delivered to the counting center in Baghdad -- that they alleged may have cost them votes.
"Our stance is that there were violations and we want the truth about them," said Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun al-Damlouji.