Baghdad - Back room talks on forming a new Iraqi government gathered steam Thursday, ahead of Friday's expected release of final results from the March 7 parliamentary polls.

With preliminary results showing a neck-and-neck race between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law list and former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi List, with a large bloc of seats going to an alliance of Shiite religious parties, those talks could determine the shape of Iraqi politics for years to come.

Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (SICI), on Thursday said he had met with Iraqi President Jalal al- Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, for "talks on Iraq's political future."

SICI is the party with the largest number of seats in the outgoing parliament, and is a key component in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the alliance of mostly Shiite religious parties that preliminary results show running in third place in the race.

"The Iraqi National Alliance is prepared to go ahead with the Kurdistan Alliance and other winning parties based on the principle of national partnership," al-Hakim said in a statement.

Leading parties should "sit down for a round table discussion of the issues ... and to begin building a strong and effective government," al-Hakim suggested Thursday.

Preliminary results show the Kurdistan Alliance, a union of the two parties that have for decades defined Iraqi Kurdish political life, with an unassailable lead in the provinces that make up northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, making them a crucial part of any coalition government.

Preliminary results also show the Kurdistan Alliance leading in the disputed city of Kirkuk, which many Kurds hope to make the capital of an independent Kurdistan.

A flurry of political activity has followed al-Maliki's demands for a manual recount of the national vote, after preliminary results showed that his coalition had lost its narrow lead to Allawi's list.

Members of al-Maliki's camp have claimed that election officials manipulated the count. Some have said they would not recognize the final results without a recount.

The electoral commission has dismissed calls for a recount as "a fantasy," saying there were no grounds to justify such a long and difficult process.

A member of Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr's movement, a coalition partner in the INA, on Thursday backed the commission's results, hinting at an INA-Allawi alliance.

"Partial results have given us a clear picture of the final outcome. We still believe the process was carried out soundly, and everyone should respect the voters' will," Sadrist politician Qasi al-Suhail said in remarks quoted by the Iraqi daily al-Mada Thursday.

Those with doubts regarding the electoral commission's work should "present them through legal channels and not with accusations or threats," he was quoted as saying.

Many observers had speculated that an alliance between the Sadrists and Allawi's Iraqi List was unlikely because of the military campaign Allawi and US forces waged against the Sadrists in 2004.

"I expect that the future political scene will not be very different from the current one," al-Suhail was quote as saying Thursday.

"We may have to work with the principle of consensus because the results are so close."