Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition is facing a stiff electoral challenge from Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc as counting for the Iraq's tightly fought parliamentary elections enters its final phase.

Trailing behind the Iraqiya bloc on Tuesday by 9,000 votes, Mr. Maliki's State of Law (SOL) formation has recovered to establish a narrow lead. With nearly 85 per cent of the votes counted, the State of Law had recorded 2,260,483 voted against Iraqiya's 2,220,443.

Mr. Allawi, riding on strong nationalist agenda has managed to draw the Sunni and secular votes, analysts say. However, Mr. Maliki backed by the Shia vote bank may in the end triumph if his coalition is joined by another Shia formation, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which is running third in the contest.

Observers, however, caution that in the numbers game that lies ahead, the Kurdish vote coalesced under the Kurdistania Alliance could also be significant.

In the last elections, the Kurds had sided with the Shia formations, and the Shia-Kurdish alliance had decisively outflanked the Sunnis and their allies.

Some analysts are of the view that if the present trend continues, Mr. Maliki's SOL and the Iraqiya bloc could each end up with 85 to 90 seats in the 325-member Parliament.

The INA could manage around 67 seats, while the Kurdistania alliance could notch up around 38.

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