BAGHDAD - Turnout in Iraq's parliamentary election was 62 percent, higher than in last year's provincial ballot, despite attempts by Sunni Islamist insurgents to disrupt the vote with attacks that killed 39, 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 better governance and stability after years of sectarian slaughter, and as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc likely did well in the Shi'ite south while a secular, Sunni-Shi'ite alliance led by former premier Iyad Allawi appeared strong in Sunni areas in the north and west, informal tallies suggested.
The voter participation in excess of 60 percent was better than many had feared and indicated Iraqis were not deterred by blasts that thudded across the capital on election day. Iraqi officials blamed the explosions on mortar, rockets and roadside bombs, but U.S. military officials said many were caused by noise bombs consisting of explosives in plastic bottles.
Those who love Iraq and its people were eager for the elections to succeed, Maliki said at a dinner for foreign election observers. Those who love dictatorship and terrorism were opposed to holding what Iraqis saw as a celebration.
In provinces predominantly inhabited by the Sunni minority that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, turnout matched or exceeded the national average, according to Hamdiya al-Husseini of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC).
That might reduce grounds for Sunnis to complain about their stake in Iraq's nascent democracy seven years after the U.S.-led invasion deprived them of a privileged position under Saddam.
Electoral authorities cautioned politicians not to make premature statements about their performance. Even so, many did.
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.
But the special voting and voters abroad, this has not been concluded yet and could alter the outcome, he said.
Maliki's hopes for re-election faced a strong challenge from ex-premier Allawi's non-religious Iraqiya slate, which garnered broad support of Sunnis suspicious of the Shi'ite-led government and what they view as its subservience to neighbouring Iran.
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.
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.
Turnout in the Sunni province of Anbar was 61 percent this time, IHEC said, while in Saddam's home province of Salahuddin 73 percent turned out to vote. That compared to 57 percent in the Shi'ite oil hub of Basra and 53 percent in Baghdad.
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 one key constituency, Allawi's list did not get as many votes as some had predicted. There were 272,016 expatriate voters, IHEC said, compared to expectations of more than one million. Most Iraqis abroad are believed to be Sunnis.
Maliki also faces stiff competition 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. Iraqiya was third, ISCI 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.
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 Aug. 31, and withdraws completely by the end of 2011.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Suadad al-Salhy, Aseel Kami and Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Michael Christie; Editing by Ralph Boulton)