BAGHDAD - More than 55 percent of Iraqis voted in parliamentary election despite attempts by Sunni Islamist insurgents to disrupt the landmark vote with attacks that killed 38 people, officials said on Monday.
Preliminary results were not expected for another day or two in a poll that Iraqis sickened by violence hope will help bring stability after years of sectarian slaughter, and better governance as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
It (turnout) is between 55 and 60 percent, said Hamdiya al-Husseini, a commissioner of Iraq's independent electoral commission, or IHEC.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law list claimed it was on course for victory in Baghdad and Iraq's Shi'ite south, a claim that could not be verified but which, at least in the south, appeared to be backed by informal, early vote tallies.
The State of Law Coalition list is leading among other lists in Baghdad and other southern provinces, said Ali al-Dabbagh, government spokesman and State of Law candidate.
Lawmaker Haider al-Ebadi, a State of Law candidate and member of Maliki's Dawa party, said initial results suggested the coalition was ahead in 10 provinces.
In Baghdad and south of Baghdad, the State of Law was number one. But the special voting and voters abroad, this has not been concluded yet and could alter the outcome, he said.
There were 250,000 voters abroad, he said, compared to expectations that more than one million Iraqis might vote overseas. Most Iraqis abroad are believed to be minority Sunnis and their votes could be crucial for the chances of a secular, Shi'ite-Sunni alliance headed by former premier Iyad Allawi.
The scale of the Sunni vote will indicate whether Sunnis feel they have a real stake in Iraq's nascent democracy after the shock of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, when they lost their relatively privileged position under Saddam Hussein.
Many Sunnis felt targeted when a Shi'ite-led panel vetoed around 500 candidates, including a top Sunni politician, before the vote, for alleged links to Saddam's outlawed Baath party.
Sunnis felt under-represented after the 2005 election for a full-term parliament, which sealed the grip on power of majority Shi'ites and minority Kurds oppressed by Saddam.
MALIKI'S STIFF CHALLENGE
Maliki faces a stiff challenge from his former Shi'ite Islamist allies grouped in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).
The powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), which is part of that bloc, said the vote appeared evenly split between Maliki and INA in early counting.
Allawi's bloc, Iraqiya, was running third, ISCI said.
Thaer al-Naqeeb, an Iraqiya candidate and close aide to Allawi, said results were not clear so far but initial figures put Iraqiya ahead in the northern and western provinces. Iraqiya got between 70-90 percent of votes in those provinces, he said.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a new party was challenging President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two groups that have dominated Kurdish politics for decades.
A robust showing by the reformist Goran list could weaken the hand of the PUK and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party in any coalition talks in Baghdad. The relative cohesion of the Kurds has allowed them to play kingmaker in the past.
It was a generally fair election, said a source in Barzani's office, adding that he did not believe Goran had done as well as some people had expected.
The official turnout figure was to be released later in the day. Early indications pointed to a voter participation rate of 61 percent in the sprawling Sunni province of Anbar and 70 percent in Kirkuk, a northern oil province at the heart of a bitter territorial dispute between Arabs and Kurds.
Whoever ends up with the biggest share of parliament's 325 seats, negotiations to form a new government are likely to take weeks if not months.
The ensuing political vacuum will test Iraq's fragile democracy as the United States halves its troop presence to 50,000, ending combat operations by August 31, and withdraws completely by the end of 2011.
Iraqi factions took five months to cobble together a coalition government last time.
A Sunni Arab and secular undervote is likely, in large measure because of the confusion, cynicism and anger over the disqualification of many of their candidates..., said Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
This imbalance, although certainly not as severe as witnessed in the 2005 elections, will have to be addressed during the jostling to form a government following the elections if current levels of stability are to be sustained.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)