Iraqis are awaiting results from a national election that was relatively peaceful but was marred by low turnout and which could help decide whether the country continues its close ties to the West or turns closer to Iran.
The country's election commission on May 12 put turnout at 44.5 percent, far below the 60 percent recorded in the previous election and the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some 22.5 million people were eligible to vote.
Authorities reported no major security incidents, but tensions simmered in oil-rich Kirkuk Province, where the governor demanded a manual recount of electronic votes and declared a curfew to prevent ethnic or sectarian clashes between the Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman communities.
And residents and officials said two Kurdish groups exchanged rifle fire in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah amid allegations of ballot rigging.
The vote was the first parliamentary election since Baghdad declared victory over Islamic State (IS) militants and routed the extremist group from most Iraqi territory last year.
Official results were expected to be announced on May 14, and the prime minister will be chosen through negotiations to form a governing coalition, which could take months.
An election commission official told Reuters on May 13 that initial unofficial results suggested Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's Victory Alliance was leading the vote, followed by the Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform.
The post of prime minister is reserved for a Shi'a, the parliament speaker is Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd. All three posts are chosen by parliament.
Abadi, a Shi'a who has sought to balance the competing influence of Washington and Tehran, was marginally ahead in opinion polls ahead of the vote.
He is attempting to fend off powerful Shi'ite groups that would like to pull the country closer to Iran.
Abadi wrote on Twitter that "with the help of God, the general voting process took place in all provinces of Iraq today, and the Iraqi people were able to cast their votes to select their representatives freely and safely."
"The provinces liberated from [IS] saw the holding of free voting for the first time after the big victory over and defeat of [IS]," he added.
Abadi's Victory Alliance list got a big boost in polls from public approval of his proclaimed victory in December over IS, which at one point in 2014 occupied a third of Iraq's territory.
Polls show Abadi also won approval for forcefully putting a stop to a bid by Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to declare independence last year. But he is not known for having charisma and has been blamed for failing to improve the economy.
Abadi also cannot rely solely on votes from the Shi'ite community to win another term in office, as Iraq's majority Shi'a are unusually split this year between three rival candidates.
Making up for the lack of a united backing from Shi'a, polls show Abadi has drawn an unusual level of support in the northern city of Mosul and other areas dominated by Sunnis that were liberated from IS.
In addition to Sadr's alliance, Abadi's other Shi'ite rivals include his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri's Fatah Alliance. All are seen as closer to Tehran than Abadi.
When he was prime minister, critics say Maliki's pro-Shi'a policies created a polarized atmosphere that enabled IS to gain sympathy among Sunnis as it swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
In his comeback attempt, Maliki is promising to strengthen the role of Shi'a in Iraq's government once again.
His rival Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran, and speaks fluent Persian.
Amiri leads the Badr Organization, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that helped to defeat IS along with Iraqi government troops and U.S.-backed Western coalition forces.
Amiri hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for Amiri would be seen as a big a win for Iran, which has sought to increase its influence in Iraq and the wider region.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 12 congratulated Iraqis on the election, saying that "citizens from every ethnic and religious group, and from all 18 provinces, including those internally displaced, made their voices heard."
"The newly elected members of parliament will have the important task of forming an inclusive government, responsive to the needs of all Iraqis," Pompeo said in a statement.
In the elections, nearly 7,000 candidates, including 2,011 women, are vying for seats in the 329-member parliament.
The splits among the country's Shi'ite factions make it unlikely for a single party to secure enough seats to form a government on its own.
The next government will face many challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war against IS, estimated at some $80 billion. Attracting foreign investment will also be high on the leaders' agenda.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, AP, and Reuters.