Baghdad: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki`s bloc looked poised on Monday to be the biggest single group in parliament, as poll results from key provinces gave him a strong lead eight days after the vote.
Preliminary results have put Maliki`s State of Law Alliance in pole position in two of Iraq`s three biggest provinces, with the bloc ahead in seven of 18 provinces overall, two more than its nearest rival, although the figures remain far from complete.
The results from the March 7 election -- the second since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003 -- come less than six months before the United States is set to withdraw all of its combat troops from the country.
Initial figures published on Sunday showed Maliki, a Shiite who has sought to portray himself as a leader who restored Iraq`s security, with comfortable leads in the southern oil province of Basra, the third largest, and in the central shrine city of Karbala.
State of Law was already ahead in Baghdad, whose 70 seats account for more than a fifth of Iraq`s 325-member Council of Representatives, as well as in the largely Shiite provinces of Babil, Najaf, Wasit and Muthanna.
Its position could change dramatically, however, as its lead in Baghdad was based on a count of only 18 percent of the vote. Election officials said updated figures from the capital were likely to be released later on Monday.
Opposition blocs have alleged fraud in the election and the count, but Maliki has dismissed the complaints as "very small" in nature. Related article: Protracted vote count sparks fraud claims.
"The complaints... cannot affect the results," he told Iraq`s National Security Council in remarks broadcast late on Sunday.
The television appearance was Maliki`s first since the election and came after his office announced on Thursday that he had undergone surgery in a Baghdad hospital for an unspecified ailment.
Election officials also downplayed charges of fraud.
Faraj al-Haidari, who heads the national election commission, told reporters the number of complaints in the general election was less than half that in provincial polls in January last year.
The electoral commission has pleaded for patience as vote tabulation has been slowed by persistent computer crashes, which again affected work on Sunday.
Meanwhile, separate sets of figures released on Sunday showed secular ex-premier Iyad Allawi, a Shiite Arab like Maliki, ahead in the northern oil province of Kirkuk, defying analyst predictions of a win for the Kurdish bloc which wants to make the area part of its autonomous region in the north.
Sunday`s results also showed Allawi ahead in the former Sunni Arab insurgent bastion of Anbar, Iraq`s largest province geographically.
That brought to five the number of provinces in which Allawi`s Iraqiya bloc was ahead.
He also leads in Nineveh, Iraq`s second largest province based on the main northern city of Mosul, and the predominantly Sunni central provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by Shiite religious groups, was ahead in the Shiite southern provinces of Maysan, Diwaniyah and Dhi Qar.
Elsewhere, figures showed Kurdistania, an alliance of the two main Kurdish former rebel factions, leading in the battleground province of Sulaimaniyah and Iraq`s northernmost province of Dohuk.
Earlier results also put Kurdistania ahead in Arbil, seat of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
Despite State of Law`s success, analysts say rival political groups could still manoeuvre to form a coalition government that excludes it.
Iraq`s system of proportional representation makes it unlikely that any single grouping will clinch the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own, and protracted coalition building is likely.
Complete election results are expected on March 18 and the final tally -- after any appeals are ruled on -- will probably come at the end of the month.
Security officials have expressed concern that a lengthy period of coalition building could give insurgent groups and al Qaeda an opportunity to destabilise Iraq by carrying out attacks.