BAGHDAD — Early results from Iraq’s parliamentary elections show Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a secular rival in a virtual dead heat but each far shy of a majority, setting the stage for what are likely to be long and difficult negotiations to form a new government.

Results also indicated a strong showing by supporters of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who could play an unpredictable role in those negotiations. Ahead of the election, al-Sadr renewed calls for an immediate and total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Released Tuesday by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, the results showed the Iraqiyya bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi leading al-Maliki’s State of Law party by a slim margin of about 9,000 of the roughly 4.2 million ballots cast for the two alliances.

Roughly 20 percent of the March 7 vote remains uncounted, as do the ballots of Iraqis living abroad and results of March 4 early voting for members of the security forces.

With Allawi inching ahead for the first time in the popular vote, al-Maliki’s bloc called Tuesday for a full recount after alleging that local election officials had manipulated the results. International observers have downplayed previous claims of fraud lodged by al-Maliki’s opponents, saying the vote was largely fair.

Al-Maliki’s party could still hold a crucial edge in parliamentary seats because it performed well in large provinces, including Baghdad and Basra. But with no party likely to exceed 100 seats in the 325-member parliament, any contender would need significant support from election rivals to form a coalition government.

“Parliamentary governments are always a bit of a mess at moments such as these,” said Nathan Hughes, an analyst at Stratfor, a private global intelligence company. “That’s especially true in Iraq.”

U.S. officials have hailed the election as a success that clears the way for a major U.S. drawdown this summer. Plans call for 50,000 American troops to remain in Iraq past August, down from about 97,000 now and 120,000 last September. All U.S. troops are scheduled to depart by the end of 2011.

The pre-election formation of several cross-sectarian alliances, including al-Maliki’s and Allawi’s, raised hopes that the vote could help Iraq move away from the divided politics of recent years. But despite the fragmentation of the country’s sectarian coalitions, it appears Iraqis still voted mainly along ethnic and religious lines.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite who has cast himself as a nationalist leader, failed to gain significant support from Sunnis, posting low single-digit percentages in Sunni-dominated western and northern provinces such as Anbar and Ninevah.

Allawi, a secular Shiite whose bloc includes a number of prominent Sunnis, dominated in those provinces but performed poorly in the Shiite south — though his bloc appears to have done slightly better among Shiites than al-Maliki did among Sunnis.

Al-Maliki’s support was further undercut by the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite parties that appears set to win around 70 seats, with the Sadrists perhaps accounting for a majority of those.

Al-Sadr, whose since-disbanded Mahdi Army repeatedly clashed with American and Iraqi government troops in past years, might demand an accelerated U.S. withdrawal as a condition for joining a coalition government. But such a move could jeopardize Iraq’s fragile security gains, and it’s not clear how far al-Sadr or his Iranian backers would want to push a status quo already seen as playing to Iranian interests.

“The Iranians have already established a strong influence in Baghdad,” Hughes said. “They’re not working to turn Iraq into chaos anymore. They want to stabilize the situation and they want the U.S. to leave, and that’s already happening. The U.S. is drawing down.”

The Kurds have in past years have played kingmakers in post-election negotiations, but Kurdish politics have also fragmented, with a reform party and an Islamist movement posting gains against the two traditional parties.

Kurdish demands for a favorable settlement over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim as a capital, could prove a major sticking point. Drawing on strong Sunni Arab and Turkman support, Allawi’s bloc held a razor thin lead on the Kurdistan Alliance in Kirkuk, according to the results released Tuesday.

American officials have long warned that rivalries over Kirkuk remain one of Iraq’s most potentially destabilizing issues. On Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, told a Senate panel that additional forces might be shifted to northern Iraq during the drawdown but that the overall reduction to 50,000 troops was on schedule.

That followed weeks of speculation that the U.S. might slow the drawdown because of concerns about security focused on Kirkuk and disputed areas nearby.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now