Iraqi Prime Minister Starts Laying Groundwork for New Government

The Iraqi prime minister's bloc said Friday it has started laying the groundwork to form a coalition government, signaling growing confidence after preliminary election results showed it winning in at least three provinces in the southern Shiite heartland.

The outcome from the key parliamentary vote was far from certain, with election officials still counting ballots nearly a week after Iraqis went to the polls.

Partial tallies so far have been released from seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, excluding Baghdad, and he picture was further muddied Friday when results from one province showed an Iran-backed Shiite religious coalition leading but also gave another province to al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki's rivals also raised new allegations of fraud, which could mar the process that will determine who should lead the country as U.S. forces prepare to go home.

According to early results released Thursday, the State of Law coalition led by al-Maliki had the lead in two mainly Shiite provinces while his secular challenger, Ayad Allawi, was ahead in two provinces north of Baghdad.

More results trickled out Friday in what has been a chaotic process in which election officials have posted tallies on TV screens at their Baghdad headquarters with little advance notice.

The electoral commission said Friday that the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition made up of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, had the lead over al-Maliki in Maysan province, which borders Iran.

With only about 23 percent of the votes counted, INA was ahead with almost 30,000 votes to 23,000 for al-Maliki's alliance.

Results released later for Muthanna province, which borders Saudi Arabia to the south, showed al-Maliki's coalition with about 15,000 votes to roughly 11,000 for the Iraqi National Alliance. Allawi's coalition, which was not expected to seriously contend in the Shiite south, came in a distant fourth with 18 percent of the votes counted.

However, Iraqi officials who have seen results from across the country said al-Maliki's coalition appeared to have a narrow edge overall, though not an outright majority. Even the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Ammar al-Hakim, said late Wednesday that al-Maliki's coalition appears to be winning — the first public statement by such a high-ranking official.

Abbas al-Bayati, a member of al-Maliki's coalition, said Friday that the alliance already had created a committee to open talks with other blocs and expected that the group would need about two or three other coalitions to form a government.

But foes of al-Maliki continued to allege fraud in the historic vote.

Rend al-Rahim, a candidate with Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, said Friday that the group had filed 32 complaints with election officials as of Thursday night. She said concerns included completed ballots that had been found in the garbage and the failure of some provinces to deliver ballot boxes to the counting center in Baghdad.