Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his main rival Iyad Allawi are projected to win the same number of seats in Iraq's parliament in a dramatic tightening of the country's election race.
Maliki's State of Law Alliance and Allawi's Iraqiya bloc were both on pace to garner 87 seats in Iraq's Council of Representatives, with less than 9,000 votes separating the two nationwide, according to an AFP projection based on 79 percent of ballots cast.

But votes cast outside Iraq and during special voting for the security forces, the sick and prisoners have not yet been tabulated by Iraq's election commission, and could yet dramatically affect the outcome.

The election, the second since Saddam Hussein was ousted in the US-led invasion of 2003, comes less than six months before the United States is set to withdraw all of its combat troops from Iraq.

State of Law leads in Baghdad, Iraq's largest province and accounting for more than twice as many parliamentary seats as any other, as well as in the oil-rich southern province of Basra, the third biggest in the country.

It is also ahead in five other mostly Shiite southern provinces, but failed to finish in the top three in all but one of Iraq's Sunni-majority provinces.

Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, on the other hand, was leading in four provinces, including Iraq's second biggest province Nineveh. It was also neck-and-neck for the lead in a fifth, Kirkuk.

He also placed in the top three in six predominantly Shiite provinces where Maliki came either first or second.

Overall, Allawi held a slim lead in the nationwide vote count, with 2,102,981 votes cast in Iraqiya's favour, compared to 2,093,997 for the State of Law alliance, a difference of just 8,984 votes.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition led by Shiite religious groups, is set to come in third with 67 seats, while Kurdistania, comprised of the autonomous Kurdish region's two long-dominant blocs, is projected to have 38.

No other group is projected to win more than 10 seats. Fifteen of the 325 seats in parliament are either compensatory or reserved for minorities and were not included in the projection.

Iraq's proportional representation electoral system makes it unlikely that any single group will clinch the 163 seats needed to form a government on its own, and protracted coalition building is likely.

Both State of Law and Iraqiya have said they have begun talks with rival blocs to form a government, with analysts warning that political groupings could still manoeuvre to form a coalition without either list.

Intisar Allawi, a senior Iraqiya candidate, said the group had held "very good and positive" talks with the INA and the Kurdish bloc, while State of Law has formed a committee to hold negotiations with other lists.

Complete election results are expected around March 18, and final results -- after all complaints have been investigated and ruled upon -- are likely by the end of the month. Related article: Protracted vote count sparks fraud claims

"We need several more days to announce the final results," Qassim al-Abboudi, an election official, told a news conference on Tuesday, explaining that the appeals process would take about two weeks after full results were published.

Opposition groups have alleged fraud in the election and the count, but Maliki dismissed the claims in televised remarks to Iraq's National Security Council broadcast late on Sunday, his first public appearance since his office announced on Thursday that he had undergone surgery for an unspecified ailment.

Election officials also downplayed allegations of fraud.

National election commission chief Faraj al-Haidari told reporters the number of complaints in the general election was less than half those filed during provincial polls in January 2009.

Security officials have expressed concern that a lengthy period of coalition building could give insurgent groups and Al-Qaeda an opportunity to further destabilise Iraq.

Their worries were illustrated when a double-blast suicide bomber targeting a military checkpoint and labourers killed eight people and wounded 28 other civilians on Monday, in Fallujah in Anbar province.

Copyright AFP 2008, AFP stories and photos shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium