BAGHDAD (AP) -- A secular challenger to Iraq's prime minister edged ahead Saturday in the overall vote count in parliamentary elections, while the prime minister held onto his province-by-province lead as the counting neared completion.
The March 7 elections will determine who will lead Iraq as American troops depart and the country is left to grapple with the sectarian divisions laid bare by the U.S.-led invasion seven years ago.
Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's political alliance was leading by 7,970 votes nationwide, according to a tally of 93 percent of the almost 12 million ballots cast. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition was leading in seven provinces compared with five for Allawi's bloc.
It was unclear whether Allawi's slim lead would hold or whether it would mean more parliament seats for his Iraqiya bloc. Under Iraq's election system, parliament seats are apportioned by how well coalitions do in each province, not by the overall vote count.
Allawi, who lead the country from 2004 to 2005, has cast himself as the man who can bridge the country's sectarian divisions. His anti-Iran rhetoric has attracted a number of Sunni -- and even Shiite -- voters worried about the growing influence of their Shiite-majority neighbor on Iraq's Shiite-led government.
Saturday's results mark the second time Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, made up of Sunni and Shiite candidates, edged ahead of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition in the lengthy tallying of votes. Election officials appear to be nearing completion of the counting.
The process has been dogged by allegations of fraud from both the Iraqiya list and al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.
"We have talked about these violations from the start and will continue talking about them -- such violations as voters' names not being registered, stamped ballots found dumped on the streets," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for the Iraqiya bloc. "By God's will, we will be the winners."
Al-Maliki's State of Law alliance earlier this week accused the electoral commission's counting center of doctoring the numbers and demanded a recount.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, has drawn on significant Sunni support in areas such as Diyala and Ninevah provinces to boost his election chances, while al-Maliki's coalition has fared well in the Shiite south and Baghdad, which accounts for almost a fifth of the parliament seats.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties with close ties to Iran, is leading in three provinces -- all in the southern Shiite heartland -- while the Kurdish Alliance, as expected, was ahead in the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region in the northern part of the country.
With no single coalition expected to win an outright majority of parliament seats, the very close vote portends an extended period of political negotiation to form a new government. Under Iraqi law, once the parliament is seated and elects a new president, he asks the bloc in parliament with the most seats to form a government. Many expect the process to take months.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
For breaking news alerts, text KMOVNEWS to 21321
Have you seen the forecast for tomorrow?
Get the latest St. Louis weather forecast