BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister hailed a high turnout in nationwide elections as a "slap in the face of terrorism" Thursday, but his upbeat comments were tempered by a U.N. announcement that last month's death toll was the highest so far this year amid a sharp spike in sectarian bloodshed.
Nouri al-Maliki, who has held power since 2006, also said he would open talks with blocs from all sects and factions to seek their support as he moves to secure a third four-year term. Significantly, violence was relatively low in the first nationwide balloting since U.S. forces withdrew, although scattered attacks killed five people.
Election workers, meanwhile, transported blue-lidded ballot boxes to counting centers and tallied votes a day after Iraqis cast ballots in parliamentary elections despite widespread fears of attacks. Authorities have not given a timetable for releasing results, and al-Maliki declined to speculate how his mainly Shiite bloc had fared. It took about two weeks in the last elections four years ago for results to be announced.
Al-Maliki's State of Law bloc was widely expected to win the most seats in the 328-member parliament but fall short of a majority — meaning he would have to cobble together a coalition, an undertaking that took nine months in 2010.
President Barack Obama also endorsed the success of the vote but warned that difficult tasks lie ahead for Iraqis.
"The people of Iraq know better than anyone else the enormous challenges that they face, and yesterday's turnout demonstrated to the world that they seek to pursue a more stable and peaceful future through the political process," he said Thursday in a statement. "Whatever the outcome of this process, it should serve to unite the country through the formation of a new government that is supported by all Iraqi communities."
More than 9,000 candidates ran in Wednesday's race, with an estimated 22 million eligible voters. Turnout was more than 60 percent, said Safaa al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the commission overseeing the election. He said the largest number was in the northern Kurdish province of Irbil at 90 percent, with the lowest reported in Anbar at 37-40 percent.
That was unsurprising as the semiautonomous Kurdish area enjoys relative stability, while the Sunni province of Anbar has long been one of the most restive regions in the country and is where now government troops are battling Islamic militants.
Attacks have surged in the past year, fueled in part by al-Maliki's moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination at the hands of his Shiite-led government. Militants have taken over parts of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi and the nearby city Fallujah. Army and police forces have battled them for months but failed to regain control, and voting was not held in many areas.
The death toll has climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013.
At least 750 Iraqis — 610 civilians and 140 security forces, were killed in April, the U.N.'s mission in Iraq said Thursday. It said 1,541 people, including 1,311 civilians, were wounded. That made it the highest since January, when 733 Iraqis were killed.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces, which had acted as a buffer between Shiites and Sunnis, is thought to have contributed to the rise in violence in addition to the use of excessive deadly force by the Shiite-led security forces against Sunni protesters.
Al-Maliki, whose bloc won 89 seats in the last election, claimed the fact there was relatively little violence on election day was a blow to al-Qaida and a splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
"It was a slap in the face of terrorism," the 63-year-old prime minister said during a news conference in Baghdad.
Some of al-Maliki's former Shiite backers have accused him of trying to amass power for himself, but many in the majority sect see no alternative. He also enjoys crucial support from neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran. However, Sunni Arabs largely distrust him, and Kurds are irked by what they view as his meddling in the affairs of their self-ruled region.
The prime minister invited his critics, including former Shiite allies, to put bickering and rivalry behind them but said he would not seek a "national unity" government, calling such efforts in the past "an experiment that we will use all our energy and effort not to repeat."
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.