BAGHDAD Secularist challenger Iyad Allawi retained a slim lead in Iraq's tight election race after a preliminary count of 95 percent of votes released on Sunday.
The lead from Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election has switched several times between Allawi's cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki mainly Shi'ite bloc, State of Law, signaling a close result whoever comes out top.
That points to weeks of difficult negotiations to form a government, raising the prospect of a political vacuum that could set back fragile security gains as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq by the end of next year.
Allawi's sweeping support in Sunni-dominated northern provinces means that any attempt to exclude him from government could further anger Sunnis who felt marginalized by the ascent of Iraq's Shi'ite majority after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Allawi led Maliki by about 11,000 votes with 95 percent of the ballots tallied, according to preliminary results released by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).
Election officials said the results of a 100 percent preliminary count would be made public on Friday.
Maliki on Saturday called for a recount saying the country could return to violence if the demand were not met.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, also called on Sunday for the IHEC to order a recount in some provinces. All the contenders have made allegations of irregularities or fraud.
In the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, an estimated 300 demonstrators gathered on Sunday near a provincial government building, demanding a recount.
Maliki, a Shi'ite who won over many Iraqis with his nationalist rhetoric and steps to crush sectarian violence, noted in a statement late on Saturday there were demands from several political blocs to manually recount the votes.
"I call on the High Electoral Commission to respond immediately to the demands of those blocs to preserve the political stability and prevent the security situation from deteriorating and avoid the return of violence," he said.
Maliki's call for a recount is mainly for votes cast in Baghdad and several other provinces, Ali al-Mussawi, an aide to the prime minister said, without specifying which provinces.
"The reason is that there were doubts of manipulation and sometimes evidence of manipulation," he said.
"As you saw, the election was running in one direction and suddenly it went in another direction, which created doubts for both politicians and the Iraqi people."
Qasim al-Aboudi, spokesman for the electoral commission, downplayed the possibility of a national recount.
"The recount demand must be based on large and strong reasons and there must be conclusive evidence for systematic, widespread fraud and this did not happen and was not indicated by any local or international report until now," Aboudi said.
Supporters of Maliki's State of Law coalition had earlier asked for a recount in Baghdad after results showed their candidate trailing the Allawi's Iraqiya.
Maliki and Allawi have been locked in a neck-and-neck race for seats in the 325-member parliament, which will be allocated on the basis of each coalition's results in each of the 18 provinces, not by the national vote count.
Maliki led in seven provinces in central and southern Iraq, six of them mainly Shi'ite. Allawi led in five provinces, sweeping western and northern areas that are home to large numbers of Sunni Arabs.
Allawi also holds a narrow lead over the powerful Kurdish ruling bloc in Kirkuk, the disputed city that is Iraq's northern oil hub.
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad and Khaled Farhan in Najaf; Editing by Jon Hemming)