Ayad Allawi claimed victory for his secular, anti-Iranian coalition as final parliamentary returns Friday showed him edging out the bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who angrily vowed to fight the results.
The results, if they stand, will give Allawi the first opportunity to form a parliamentary majority and Iraq's next government. But they do not automatically mean that he will become prime minister, and the narrow margin sets the stage for months of political wrangling.
"On this occasion, I'd like to congratulate the Iraqi people and extend the hand of friendship to all neighboring and world countries," said Allawi, a secular Shiite politician and former prime minister who appealed across sectarian lines to minority Sunnis who have been out of power since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods, the site of vicious sectarian fighting just a few years ago, erupted in cheering, honking of horns and celebratory gunfire in support of the man whom they have endorsed as their own.
Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, announced in a nationally televised news conference that he would not accept the results, which gave his bloc 89 seats to Allawi's 91 in Iraq's 325-seat parliament. Election officials refused al-Maliki's previous calls for a re-count, and international observers have said the election was fair and credible.