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Vote Counting Continues in Iraq, Coalition Government Likely

Votes are still being counted in Iraq and preliminary returns indicate that no party will win an outright majority. This means the leading factions will likely need to form a coalition government and negotiations could take months to complete.

It has been more than a week since Iraq's parliamentary elections. While results continue to trickle in, it appears that no clear winners are likely to emerge.

Partial returns show Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition leading in Baghdad and in some southern provinces.

In predominantly Sunni areas, the coalition led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, appears to be winning.

As expected, Kurdish parties are maintaining their control in the mostly Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq.

Sunnis largely boycotted the previous election in 2005, but apparently turned out in large numbers last week.

Analysts like Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War here in Washington, says the high Sunni turnout is a very positive sign.

"I think it is actually fantastic that there was such high voter turnout in Sunni areas," said Kimberly Kagan. "It indicates to me, as an analyst, that the Sunni population is keenly interested in participating in the political realm."

Some candidates have been quick to charge fraud, although United Nations officials say there is little evidence of widespread irregularities.

The slow release of election returns and the tight race between the parties have raised concerns about whether Iraq's fledgling institutions can manage a peaceful transfer of power.

Again, analyst Kimberly Kagan:

"There is always the potential for a recurrence of violence, but I think it is actually unlikely given the extraordinary voter turnout, the extraordinary participation within Iraq's elections," she said.

After parliamentary elections in 2005, political leaders struggled for more than five months to form a government.

The confusion and uncertainty allowed insurgents to gain strength and thousands were killed in the sectarian fighting that followed.

Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, research manager at the Institute for the Study of War, says she expects that negotiations after this most recent election will also be protracted.

"I think that because it looks like the top four parties are going to be relatively close to one another, it is going to require a significant amount of political maneuvering, brokering deals, a lot of horse trading [deal making] behind closed doors to form a government," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan. "In terms of the time length, I think you are looking at months, not weeks."

There are about 96,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Pentagon officials say they plan to keep them in the country to help provide a security environment conducive to a peaceful transfer of power.

Pentagon officials say that once that is completed, the United States is prepared to draw down its military forces in large numbers.

Analyst James Danly of the Institute for the Study of War, who completed two consecutive tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq, says he believes such a withdrawal is possible.

"Looking from where I was as a platoon leader a few years back, the development of the Iraqi security forces is dramatic and it continues to improve in ways that if you had told me this would happen a few years ago when I was in Baghdad I would not have believed it," said James Danly. "They are truly competent in a way they were not before. So I think they really can fill the gap that is going to be left by the American withdrawal."

The United States plans to reduce its military forces in Iraq to 50,000 by September 1. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a full withdrawal of American forces by the end of next year.