Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi edged past Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday in results from Iraq's fragmented March 7 vote that may lead to months of political bargaining and create a risky power vacuum.
The new initial results, reversing the lead that Maliki had taken in earlier counts over the past week, came on a day when twin bomb attacks in the town of Mussayab, 60 km (40 miles) south of the capital, killed eight people.
The bombs went off within minutes of one another after attackers attached two bombs to passengers cars, underscoring Iraq's vulnerability as it confronts the possibility of major political change and U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
The blasts, a day after seven people were killed by a car bomb in western Anbar province, raised doubts about how Iraq's fragile security will stand up during what likely will be long, divisive talks among leading politicians to form a government.
Allawi's narrow lead in the national vote count over Maliki's mainly Shi'ite State of Law bloc, which is ahead in seven of 18 provinces but has barely made a dent in Sunni areas, underlines Iraq's polarization after years of sectarian war.
Allawi, a secular Shi'ite whose cross-sectarian, secularist Iraqiya list is now ahead in five provinces, has galvanized support among minority Sunnis eager to reclaim the influence they lost when Saddam Hussein's long rule ended in 2003.
With about 80 percent of an estimated 12 million votes counted, only about 9,000 votes separate Maliki's and Allawi's coalitions. Definitive final results could take weeks.
One or the other bloc is likely to ally with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a largely Shi'ite bloc made up of Maliki's estranged allies, running third, or with a partnership of Kurdish parties which dominated Iraq's Kurdish north.
While Maliki, who has built his reputation on pulling Iraq back from the brink of civil war, has wide support, allies of Allawi, an urbane physician and critic of the Shi'ite religious parties dominating Iraq since 2003, were feeling confident.
Thaer al-Naqeeb, a close aide to Allawi, said he expected the final results would show Allawi ahead of Maliki, even though the prime minister is now ahead in Baghdad, the biggest electoral prize with 68 seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament.
The results are really close and positive (for us) ... How can Maliki beat us? he asked.
Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, suggested that defeat may not be accepted gracefully in a post-election climate already marked by allegations of fraud.
This is not over till it's over, and I'm not just talking about the final tally but the attempts by the loser, whoever it may be, to leapfrog over the winner after the count, he said.
How Iraq forms a government agreeable to mutually suspicious rivals like Maliki and Allawi, plus all the country's other rival factions, will be key to maintaining security as Washington looks toward an end-2011 deadline for withdrawal.
An alliance of the country's two main Kurdish parties has the lead in three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. It trails close behind Allawi's bloc in Kirkuk, the oil-producing province at the heart of a bitter struggle between Arabs and Kurds.
Allawi now leads the Kurd bloc there by a handful of votes.
Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London, said influence from Iraq's fellow Shi'ite-majority neighbor Iran could be instrumental in producing another government alliance between Maliki, the INA and the Kurds.
To some extent this would be a reconstitution of the coalition that governed Iraq so ineptly from 2006 to 2010, he said.
The Iranian government, eager to see someone representing Shi'ite interests leading Iraq, praised the elections.
All international supervision has confirmed the soundness of the Iraqi elections. This is a success and we congratulate Iraqis, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.
(Additional reporting by Jim Loney, Rania El Gamal and Missy Ryan; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Roddy)