BAGHDAD (AFP) - Vote counting is under way on Thursday following Iraq's relatively peaceful elections, but with results not due for weeks and parties bitterly divided, forming a new government is expected to take months.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in power, has said he is "certain" of victory but to retain the top job, he must court disaffected parties within his own Shiite community, as well as Sunnis and Kurds who have angrily voiced opposition to his rule.
Many ordinary Iraqis, meanwhile, have voiced frustration with a marked deterioration in security, rampant corruption, high unemployment and what critics of the government say is insufficient improvement in public services.
Preliminary results from Wednesday's elections are not expected for at least two weeks. Initial figures from the election commission said nearly 60 per cent of Iraq's 20 million eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the last election in 2010 was 62 per cent.
Much as was the case following previous elections, forming a government is likely to take months. While Mr Maliki's bloc is tipped to win the most seats, no single party is expected to win a majority on its own and Iraq's various political alliances and communal groups will have to form coalitions.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the three main positions of power - the president, typically a Kurd, the prime minister, normally a Shiite, and the speaker of parliament, usually a Sunni Arab - are often negotiated as an encompassing package.
"Finding a balance between the three communities - Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds - is not that easy of a process," said Mr Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa Director for Eurasia Group. He predicted government formation could take three to six months, noting that "it's a bit difficult to do all of these things at once."
Wednesday's general election, the first since US troops withdrew in late 2011, came amid a protracted surge in nationwide bloodshed that has left more than 3,000 dead already this year. The bloodletting continued on election day, with 14 people killed, including two election workers. But a security clampdown meant violence levels were lower than in the preceding two days, when in all nearly 90 people died, with Washington and the United Nations hailing the vote as a broadside to extremists trying to derail the political process.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraqis had "courageously voted", sending "a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists" in Iraq and the region. The UN Security Council urged Iraq's leaders to form a government "that represents the will and sovereignty of the Iraqi people" as soon as possible.
The Security Council, in a statement, stressed "no act of violence or terrorism can reverse a path towards peace, democracy and reconstruction in Iraq, underpinned by the rule of law and respect for human rights, which is supported by the people and the government of Iraq and the international community".
Despite the myriad issues facing Iraqis, candidates largely appealed to voters on ethnic, communal or tribal grounds, and the campaign itself hinged on Mr Maliki's bid for a third term. His critics have accused him of concentrating power and marginalising the Sunni minority, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.
The prime minister contends the violence is fuelled by the conflict in neighbouring Syria and has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents. On Wednesday, he was bullish about the outcome of the vote, and told journalists after he cast his ballot that "victory is certain".
Analysts had expressed fears that many voters would stay home rather than risk being targeted by militants. But many Iraqis said they had voted despite the unrest because they were tired of their elected officials. "I hope to change all the current politicians, especially members of parliament, because they are thieves and are looting the country's money," said 91-year-old Jawad Kamal al-Din, who hobbled to a polling centre in west Baghdad.