BAGHDAD — A jubilant 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.In comments to cheering supporters at his Baghdad headquarters, he spoke of his desire to help build a stable region that would help "achieve prosperity for (Iraq's) people."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.Regardless of who eventually comes out on top, the results of the March 7 elections suggest that millions of Iraqis are fed up with a political system that revolves around membership in one of the two major Islamic sects.They also show that Iraqis — both Shiite and Sunni — are suspicious ofIranian influence. Allawi was widely seen as closer to the region'sArab governments than to neighboring Shiite Iran. The next prime minister will lead a government that presumably will bein power when the U.S. completes its scheduled troop withdrawal fromIraq next year. There has been fear among some in the West that a U.S.withdrawal would effectively leave Iraq as an Iranian puppet.Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, announcedin a nationally televised news conference that he would not accept theresults, which gave his bloc 89 seats to Allawi's 91 in Iraq's 325-seatparliament.Gesturing angrily, he said he would challenge the vote count throughwhat he described as legal process. By law, he would have until Mondayto register his complaints with the election commission.After the complaints are addressed by the election commission, theresults may be revised and then finally submitted to the country'sSupreme Court, which must ratify them. The entire process could takeweeks.Al-Maliki and his supporters in his State of Law coalition hadpreviously called for a re-count, saying there had been instances ofvote rigging and fraud. But election officials had refused, andinternational observers have said the election was fair and credible.The top U.N. official in Iraq, Ad Melkert, called on all sides toaccept the results. That sentiment was echoed by U.S. AmbassadorChristopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. militaryofficial in Iraq, who praised what they described as a "historicelectoral process," and said they support the finding of electionobservers who found no evidence of widespread or serious fraud.The news represents a spectacular turnaround for Allawi, a doctor whohas spent much of his life in London as a leading member of theopposition to Saddam's regime.He served as the U.S.-appointed prime minister in Iraq from 2004 to2005. During that time he won enemies for his backing of U.S. militarycampaigns in both the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the Shiite townof Najaf — although more recently, many have praised his stand as asign of his willingness to deal harshly with militant groups. Allawi's path to a coalition government is anything but assured. Hewill face significant challenges finding allies who want to align withhim.For starters, many of his Sunni backers are anathema to the country'sKurdish population, who are considered key to any coalition. The Kurdshave often clashed with Sunni Arabs in disputed territories that theKurds claim stretching from the Syrian border to the Iranian border.Many Shiites also view Allawi's Sunni allies as little more thanSaddam-era holdovers hoping for a return to the Baathist regime thatonce ruled the country.His attempts to run on his own merits failed miserably during the lastparliamentary elections in December 2005, when his U.S.-supportedalliance was trounced. But Allawi, who once fought off an assassinationattempt by a machete-wielding assailant believed to be sent by Saddam,has shown a keen instinct for political survival.In the current campaign, Allawi's bloc provided a stark contrast to thereligious orientation of the two large, Shiite-led coalitions led bythe Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, andal-Maliki's Dawa Party. His political rallies were Western in style,with music and dancing — a contract with the more sober rallies for thereligious parties.Al-Maliki campaigned with all the benefits of incumbency: easy air timeon national TV, the ability to dole out favors to local officials inexchange for their support, and a record of helping stop some of thecountry's violence.The prime minister, known as a hardline Shiite during his first coupleof years in power, has more recently transformed himself into alaw-and-order nationalist who has occasionally reached out to Sunnis,who make up about 15-20 percent of Iraqi's population.While trying to re-establish a strong central government — most notablyby routing a Shiite militia that ruled parts of Baghdad and Iraq'ssecond-largest city, Basra — al-Maliki has also alienated many keyconstituencies by governing with a heavy hand. His support for a ban ofhundreds of candidates with alleged ties to Saddam's regime severelyundercut any support he had from Sunnis, who felt the ban unfairlytargeted their candidates.Friday's results were based on numbers released by the electioncommission and compiled by The Associated Press. The commissionreleased the seat allocation by province but did not include an overallnumber of seats won.Allawi fared well in provinces with significant Sunni populations suchas Ninewah, Anbar, Salaheddin, and Kirkuk, while al-Maliki won moresupport in areas with significant Shiite populations such as Baghdad,and much of the Shiite south.Significantly, though, Allawi did better in Shiite areas than al-Malikidid in Sunni regions. Allawi managed to win three seats in the southernprovince of Basra, for example. That proved key to his victory.Hours before the results were announced, two bombings near a restaurantin a city north of Baghdad killed at least 40 people — a harbinger of aspike in violence that many Iraqis fear could accompany lengthynegotiations on forming a coalition government.An increase in attacks could complicate U.S. plans to reduce trooplevels from 95,000 to 50,000 by the end of August. All U.S. forces areslated to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.