BAGHDAD - The Iraqi prime minister's coalition and its main secular rival both claimed to be ahead in the vote count yesterday, a day after historic parliamentary elections that the top U.S. commander said would let all but 50,000 American troops come home by the end of summer.
Sunday's election, which took place against a backdrop of violence in Baghdad, marked a turning point for the country's nascent democracy. The winner will help determine whether Iraq can resolve its sectarian divisions and preserve the nation's fragile security as U.S. troops leave.
Initial results for some provinces, as well as for Baghdad, were to be announced today.
It was only the country's second election for a full parliamentary term, and it attracted 62 percent of about 19 million eligible voters, according to the nation's election commission. The December 2005 election drew 76 percent of eligible voters.
Officials attributed the lower turnout to a combination of voter intimidation, more stringent ID requirements at the polls and a drop in voter excitement. A spate of attacks on election day killed 36 people.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called the election a milestone and said that every sign suggests Iraq will be able to form a new government peacefully in the coming months, and U.S. combat troops can head home by the end of August.
A win for al-Maliki or secular rival Iraqiya could indicate Iraqis' frustration with religious parties that have been the dominant political force since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.