BAGHDAD – The top U.S. general for Iraq said Monday the country's national election was a milestone on the way to a full pullout of U.S. combat troops by September 1 as planned.
Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters in Baghdad that most of the about 96,000 troops currently in Iraq will remain here though May, when the military will begin scaling down to 50,000 noncombat troops by the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline at the start of September. The timetable calls for all troops to be out by the end of 2011.
"Unless there's a catastrophic event, we don't see that changing," Odierno said. "We believe we're right on track for that. We think this is another milestone."
Odierno says that as of now, every sign points to Iraq being able to peacefully form a new government in coming months.
The parliamentary elections Sunday will determine whether Iraq can overcome deep sectarian divides that almost tore it apart and usher in a new government as U.S. forces prepare to leave. Iraqis voted despite a wave of attacks — some of them directly on voters and polling stations — that killed 36 people.
Iraq's electoral commission said final results would be released within a few days, most likely on Thursday. Counting the poll's complicated ballot — some 6,200 candidates competed for 325 parliamentary seats — will take time.
Faraj al-Haidari, who heads the Independent High Electoral Commission, estimated turnout in Sunday's vote between 55 to 60 percent of about 19 million eligible voters.
If that turnout is confirmed, that would be down from the last parliamentary election in Dec. 2005 when turnout was 76 percent, though higher than last year's provincial elections when a little more than half of eligible voters cast ballots. Al-Haidari told The Associated Press the exact turnout would be released later Monday.
Even then, the outcome will likely be followed by protracted negotiations on who will make up the next government and the various coalitions and parties have already begun jockeying for positions.
No one coalition is expected to win an outright majority in the 325-seat parliament. So the coalition that gets the largest number of votes will be tasked with cobbling together a government with other partners — a process that could take months.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition said it had done well, especially in Baghdad and the south, and that the group is open to talks with anyone.
"We do not have a veto or a red line against any list. We are open to talks with all," said the coalition's Abbas al-Bayati, predicting his list had secured at least 100 of the parliament's 325 seats.
However, al-Maliki's faction may be hard-pressed to find negotiating partners after having alienated most of the other groups in the pre-election period.
Many Sunnis appeared to have thrown their weight behind former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya alliance, in a calculated political decision to support a Shiite who they thought best able to represent their needs.
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 included a number of high-profile Sunni candidates as well.
"We were fooled in the past and we don't want to be fooled again," said Abu Abayda Thaamir, a Sunni from Baghdad's mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood, who said he had no problems voting for a Shiite candidate.
Another key player in the election, Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, also known as SIIC, that is part of a broad religious Shiite coalition known as Iraqi National Alliance, appeared to have fallen behind although it could still be a kingmaker.
"We cannot make any move about forming coalitions until the results are announced," said an official with the SIIC, who spoke on condition of anonymity pending official results. But he said the INA coalition fell short of the 90-95 seats expected.
Across Iraq, people were taking down campaign posters and burying those who died in the violence. Iraqi security forces lifted an all-night curfew in place to deter attacks and ease movement of ballot boxes to counting stations.