BAGHDAD - Iraqi election results expected today will likely show a virtual tie between the two top vote-getting blocs led by the prime minister and his chief rival, a political equation that could add up to bitter political wrangling and risk reigniting violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who enjoys wide support with the Shiite majority, is neck-and-neck with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is popular with Iraq's Sunni minority.
If neither camp emerges with a clear mandate, many fear a drawn-out political debate to form a government could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, himself a candidate, called on Iraq's electoral commission to hold off releasing the tally today because he fears the political rivalries could erupt into violence. That concern has been echoed by many members of Maliki's State of Law coalition, who say they fear the Shiite majority could react in outrage if they feel the results are not what they expect.
Such pronouncements likely reflect political posturing. Election officials have dismissed calls for a further delay or a recount of the returns from the March 7 vote.
Many Iraqis fear a return to violence between the Sunni and Shiite factions amid the horse-trading that will ramp up in earnest once all results are made public.
Maliki's coalition has drawn much of its support from the Shiite majority. His attempts to appeal to Sunnis were undercut by his support for a ban on many Sunni candidates for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's regime.
The Sunnis largely threw their support behind Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which, while headed by a Shiite, has billed itself as secular.
Iraq's Kurdish faction sees itself as a key electoral kingmaker, though followers of radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could also play a pivotal role after garnering a significant number of seats.
"Everybody's talking to everybody," said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the Century Foundation. "None of these governments make a whole lot of sense in terms of consistent ideologies. . . . It's all about wielding power."
A senior Sadrist official, Amir Taher al-Kinani, yesterday warned that it was important Allawi's Iraqiya coalition not be sidelined, because it represented the Sunni spectrum. Excluding the bloc could lead to conflict. "We fear the violent acts and then another unstable four years," he said.
Today's announcement will have full results and, more important, the number of parliamentary seats won be each bloc.
"The difference between the leader and the second place will be one to two seats," said Independent High Electoral Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari, although he would not say who was ahead.
In the overall tally, with 95 percent of the votes counted, Maliki's coalition narrowly trails Allawi's bloc. But Maliki's coalition is ahead in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, compared with Allawi's five. The allocation of parliament's seats is based on votes counted per province.
The results must then be ratified by the Supreme Court, after which they become final.
Whoever succeeds in forming a government - a process that could take months - will be able to reward allies with control of government ministries and the jobs that go with them. He will also preside over a pivotal moment in Iraq's postwar history: the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
About 95,000 U.S. troops remain, but that number is expected to drop to 50,000 by the end of August under President Obama's plan to remove all combat troops from the country. All American troops are to leave by the end of 2011.