Preliminary totals show Islamic candidates beating out interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi by a more than 2 to 1 margin.
Only 1.6 million ballots have been counted so far, or 10 percent of the estimated 16 million cast, Safeer Rasheed, an Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq spokesman, said. He cautioned that the initial numbers did not represent total results. That number would represent about 60 percent of registered voters.
But if the trend continues, the United Iraqi Alliance, supported by religious Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, could take a two-thirds majority in the new 275-member parliament.
In that case, the question on everyone's mind is if the new government would vote to approve a state based on religious laws rather than secular ones.
Leaders of the list have said they intend to form a broader coalition with other parties, however. Based on rules set up by former U.S. administrators in Iraq, 30 percent of the parliament must be women.
Candidates who are very religious in their personal lives can remain secular in the government, said Adel Abdul Mehdi, finance minister and one of those whose names as being discussed as a possible prime minister.
"This will be a package. We have to negotiate the presidency and the cabinet," Mehdi said. "We want a strong government, a united government. Ministers will follow a government policy."
Vote counting is going slowly to ensure complete transparency, Rasheed said. Election workers are investigating complaints of polling stations that did not open in Mosul, in northwestern Iraq, on Election Day, he said.
But there is no system in place to allow those voters to cast ballots on another day, he said. Insurgents and U.S.-led forces have battled in Mosul in recent months.
"There was a lot of unrest, fighting and military operations there," Rasheed said. "We couldn't open all of the centers that were intended to be opened."
All complaints will be addressed before the final results are announced, he said.
After the fall of the former Saddam Hussein regime, an interim Governing Council was named by U.S. administrators in fall 2003. When sovereignty was handed back to Iraqis in June 2004, a new government took office - one that had been put together in large part by United Nations adviser Lakhdar Brahimi.
The election is also seen as a marker for when U.S. troops might leave Iraq. Both the United Iraqi Alliance and Allawi's coalition of candidates has called for a timetable for the departure of an estimated 170,000 troops at the moment. U.S. President George W. Bush did not mention a departure date in his State of the Union speech Wednesday.
"We will define conditions for U.S. troops to leave,"Mehdi said. "I think Americans are also anxious to leave."
Vote counting could take up to 10 days. The first votes to be counted come from the heavily Shiite Muslim southern Iraq and 25 percent of "mixed" neighborhoods in Baghdad, Rasheed said.
The new parliament is to name a three-person presidential council, which will name a prime minister. It is then to write a new constitution to be put to voters by the middle of the year. Following the constitution's approval, a new government is expected to run for office by December 2005 under conditions laid out by U.S. administrators.
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Commentary: Iraqi Palmistry
Washington (UPI) Feb. 1, 2005
An optimist in the Middle East is someone who's almost always wrong, while a pessimist is usually an optimist with experience. And those who live by the crystal ball in Araby usually wind up eating crunched glass.
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