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Iraq prime minister, secular rival in tight contest

BAGHDAD - First results from Iraq's parliamentary election yesterday showed the prime minister and his secular rival locked in an extremely tight contest amid fraud allegations by rival parties and a chaotic, unpredictable vote count.

While the partial tallies came from only five of Iraq's 18 provinces, officials who have seen results from across the country said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition appeared to have a narrow edge. That foreshadows tough and lengthy negotiations to build a government and choose a prime minister.

The partial results, posted on TV screens in Baghdad to crowds of reporters, were the first in an election that will determine who governs the country as U.S. troops go home, and whether Iraqis can put behind them deep sectarian tensions that once brought their nation to the brink of civil war.

The initial tallies from Sunday's voting suggested an exceedingly tight contest between coalitions led by al-Maliki, who gained popularity as security improved, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia who criticized al-Maliki for failing to boost reconciliation efforts between Iraq's factions.

The emerging picture was a setback to hard-line Shia leaders who saw al-Maliki making gains on their turf in the south. Results so far did not include Baghdad, which accounts for 70 of the parliament's 325 seats. - AP

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