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Iraq election: Will Prime Minister Maliki lose his job?

With 80 percent of the Iraq election votes counted, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is neck and neck with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Even if Maliki wins the popular vote, he may not be able to hold together a coalition government.

By Hannah Allam and Laith HammoudiMcClatchy Newspapers / March 18, 2010

Iraq Election: An election campaign poster for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is seen in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad

Nearly half a million people voted for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad, making him by far the leading candidate in the province where the most seats are at stake, according to partial results from this month's election in Iraq.

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Those hundreds of thousands of supporters in the capital, along with many thousands more who voted for Maliki's coalition in outlying provinces, could be in for a jolt in coming months if his powerful enemies succeed in derailing his bid for a second term as prime minister

Especially now that he's neck and neck with a secular rival, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Maliki's chances of retaining his premiership are dubious.

Maliki has no outright majority, no mandate and precious little support from factions that would be the key to his survival. The campaign against him is so robust that members of his own State of Law coalition haven't ruled out dumping him as the prime minister nominee in order to lure partners that would give them a dominant voice in the next government, according to interviews with Maliki's allies, opponents and independent observers.

Even if Maliki pulls off a second term over the objections of rival parties, his opponents have said privately that they'd block his efforts in parliament and open up potentially embarrassing corruption inquiries, strategies that could lead to an even weaker and more violent Iraq just as U.S. forces prepare for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.

"There's a lot of resistance to him. There are a number of parties who'll find it difficult to strike a deal in a new government with him as prime minister, not necessarily with his coalition," said a Western diplomat, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to make public statements. "On the other hand, if he does especially well, a large seat differential between his coalition and the second-place finisher, that'll change the dynamic."

Neck and neck with Allawi

With about 80 percent of votes counted, the race is too close to call, but so far there's only a minuscule seat differential between Maliki's bloc and the mixed-sect ticket led by Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim who appears to have picked up the Sunni Muslim vote. As of late Tuesday, Allawi had even edged ahead of Maliki in the nationwide popular vote.

At last count, Maliki's bloc was ahead in seven provinces, Allawi's Iraqiya slate was ahead in five and the main Kurdish coalition and the Shiite religious Iraqi National Alliance were leading in three provinces apiece. With no faction expected to win a clear majority, the season has arrived for deal-making and shifting alliances.

While Maliki's State of Law coalition is among the most cohesive, mainly because his Dawa Party forms the backbone, his co-candidates are bracing for an uncomfortable ultimatum from opponents: Drop the coalition's main attraction — the man who got them the most votes — or risk losing influential allies that could transform those votes into real power in the next government.