Iraqi election results Friday will likely show a virtual tie between the two top vote-getting blocs led by the prime minister and his chief rival, a political equation that could add up to bitter political wrangling and risk re-igniting violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who enjoys wide support with the Shiite majority, is neck and neck with former prime minister Ayad Allawi, who's popular with Iraq's Sunni minority.
If neither camp emerges with a clear mandate to lead Iraq's fragile democracy, many fear a drawn-out political debate to form a government could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.
The country's interior minister, himself a candidate, Thursday called on Iraq's electoral commission to hold off releasing the tally Friday because he fears rivalries between the various political blocs could erupt into violence. That concern has also been echoed by many members of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, who say they fear the country's Shiite majority could react in outrage if they feel the results aren't what they expect.
Such pronouncements likely reflect a great deal of political posturing. Election officials have firmly dismissed calls for a delay or a recount in a vote-tallying process that has dragged on for nearly three weeks since Iraqis went to the polls March 7.
Even so, many here fear a return to violence between the country's Sunni and Shiite factions amid the horse-trading that will ramp up in earnest once all results are out.
Al-Maliki's coalition has drawn much of its support from Iraq's Shiite majority and his attempts to appeal to Sunnis were undercut by his support for ban on many Sunni candidates for alleged ties to the previous regime.
The Sunnis largely threw their support behind Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which while headed by a Shiite has billed itself as secular.
Iraq's Kurdish faction has long seen itself as a key electoral kingmaker, though followers of radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could also play a pivotal role after garnering a significant number of seats.
"Everybody's talking to everybody," said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the Century Foundation. "None of these governments make a whole lot of sense in terms of consistent ideologies ... It's all about wielding power."
A senior Sadrist official, Amir Taher al-Kinani, warned Thursday that it is important Allawi's Iraqiya coalition not be sidelined because it represents the Sunni spectrum and excluding the Sunni-dominated bloc could lead to conflict.
"We fear the violent acts and then another unstable four years," he said in an interview.
Friday's announcement will have the full results -- and more importantly, the number of parliamentary seats per bloc.
"The difference between the leader and the second place will be one to two seats," Independent High Electoral Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari told The Associated Press, although he would not say who was ahead.
In the overall tally, with 95 percent of the votes counted, al-Maliki's coalition narrowly trails Allawi's bloc. But al-Maliki's coalition is ahead in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, compared to Allawi's five. The allocation of parliament's seats is based on votes counted per province.
The results must then be ratified by the Supreme Court after which they become final.
Whoever succeeds in forming a government -- a process that could take months -- will be able to reward allies with control of government ministries and the jobs that go with them. He will also preside over a pivotal moment in Iraq's postwar history: the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
About 95,000 American troops remain, but that number is expected to drop to 50,000 by the end of August under President Barack Obama's plan to remove all combat troops from the country. All American troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.
While the threat of constant, large scale attacks has diminished significantly under al-Maliki's tenure, violence continues to plague Iraq.
In southwestern Baghdad, a bomb killed a commandeer of a Sunni pro-government militia. In an eastern neighborhood, gunmen raided a house, killing a woman and her daughter. And near Suwayrah, south of Baghdad, police found the bullet-riddled body of an unidentified woman.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Katarina Kratovac and Rebecca Santana contributed reporting.