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Secular challenger claims victory in Iraq election

BAGHDAD - A jubilant Ayad Allawi claimed victory for his secular, anti-Iranian coalition as final parliamentary returns Friday showed him edging out the bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who angrily vowed to fight the results.

The results, if they stand, will give Allawi the first opportunity to form a parliamentary majority and Iraq's next government. But they do not automatically mean that he will become prime minister, and the narrow margin sets the stage for months of political wrangling.

"On this occasion, I'd like to congratulate the Iraqi people and extend the hand of friendship to all neighboring and world countries," said Allawi, a secular Shia politician and former prime minister who appealed across sectarian lines to minority Sunnis who have been out of power since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, announced in a nationally televised news conference that he would not accept the results, which gave his bloc 89 seats to Allawi's 91 in Iraq's 325-seat parliament. By law, he would have until Monday to register his complaints with the election commission.

Regardless of who eventually comes out on top, the results of the March 7 elections suggest that millions of Iraqis are fed up with a political system that revolves around membership in one of the two major Islamic sects. They also show that Iraqis - both Shia and Sunni - are suspicious of Iranian influence. Allawi was widely seen as closer to the region's Arab governments.

Friday's results were based on numbers released by the election commission and compiled by The Associated Press. The commission released the seat allocation by province.

Hours before the results were announced, two bombings near a restaurant in a city north of Baghdad killed at least 40 people - a harbinger of a spike in violence that many Iraqis fear could accompany lengthy negotiations on forming a coalition government.

An increase in attacks could complicate U.S. plans to reduce troop levels from 95,000 to 50,000 by the end of August. All U.S. forces are slated to leave Iraq by the end of next year.

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