BAGHDAD — Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his secular, anti-Iranian coalition narrowly won Iraq's parliamentary elections in final returns Friday, edging out the bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who angrily vowed to challenge the results.
If Allawi's coalition remains on top, it will get the first opportunity to form a parliamentary majority and Iraq's next government — and complete his emergence from what once appeared to be a political graveyard. But it does not automatically mean that he will become prime minister, and the narrow margin sets the stage for months of political wrangling.
A coalition including anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr finished a strong third in the March 7 elections and could play the role of kingmaker. Kurdish parties also could be crucial in determining who will rule the oil-rich Arab nation of 28 million people.
Allawi told cheering supporters at his Baghdad headquarters that he wants to help build a stable region that would help "achieve prosperity for (Iraq's) people."
He is a secular Shiite politician who appealed across sectarian lines to minority Sunnis who have been out of power since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. He served as the U.S.-backed prime minister in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and won enemies for his backing of U.S. military campaigns in both the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the Shiite town of Najaf. Many praised his stand as a sign of his willingness to deal harshly with militant groups, but in the 2005 election, his party was trounced.
The results released Friday portend an ugly, protracted battle. No coalition is close to the 163 seats needed to control the 325-seat Parliament.
Allawi's Iraqiya coalition won 91 seats to 89 for Maliki's State of Law bloc. The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite religious group dominated by Sadr's followers, won about 70 seats, and Kurdish parties picked up 51.
The next prime minister will lead a government that presumably will be in power when the United States completes its scheduled troop withdrawal from Iraq next year.
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. Gesturing angrily, he said he would challenge the vote count through what he described as a legal process. By law, he would have until Monday to register his complaints with the election commission.
Maliki and his supporters had previously called for a recount, saying there had been instances of vote rigging and fraud. But election officials had refused, and international observers have said the election was fair and credible.