Early results from Iraq's key election began coming in Thursday, showing a coalition led by the Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki ahead in two southern Shiite provinces where he was opposed by hard-line religious parties with close ties to Iran.
The results were the first to be officially released by the Independent High Electoral Commission since Sunday's balloting, and Iraqis continued to wait for results from the country's other 16 provinces.
The early results only reflect about one third of the votes cast in the two provinces in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south.
Still, they foreshadow an Maliki victory in an area where he was opposed by hard-line religious Shiite political leaders who have close ties to Iran.
In an effort to cast himself as an inclusive leader for all Iraqis, al-Maliki quit the main Shiite coalition last year to create the State of Law alliance, which includes some Sunni groups.
In Babil province, al-Maliki's political bloc won about 42 percent of the estimated 160,870 votes that have been counted so far, according to the data released by the election commission. In neighboring Najaf province, al-Maliki's win was even stronger ó about 47 percent of the ballot count of 116,600 votes.
The Iraqi National Alliance, which is Iraq's top Shiite religious coalition, came in second in both provinces. The non-sectarian Iraqiya coalition led by former Premier Ayad Allawi, al-Maliki's top critic, came in third in the two provinces.
Some rivals of al-Maliki from the main Shiite coalition opposing him said earlier that his coalition appears to be in the lead across the country.