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BAGHDAD — Iraq’s major coalitions were locked in a surprisingly close race on Thursday, in initial results from elections that deepened divisions across a fractured landscape. Candidates were quick to charge fraud, heightening concerns whether Iraq’s fledgling institutions were strong enough to support a peaceful transfer of power.

The day was the most tumultuous since Sunday’s vote for Parliament, with Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s office saying he underwent surgery, officials with his chief rival complaining that their ballots were dumped in the garbage, and a leading Shiite coalition claiming that they had challenged the popular mandate that al-Maliki needed to return to power.

The turmoil deepened both anticipation and uncertainty over an election to choose a government that will rule Iraq as the United States begins its military withdrawal in earnest next month.

“It is a very close race,” said a Western official, who viewed the early results but spoke on condition of anonymity since Iraqi officials were designated to release them. “Whatever the end results, we know it will be a fierce struggle to form a government.”

The initial returns, according to officials who have seen tallies from across the country, suggested a very tight race between al-Maliki’s coalition; Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and the leader of the Iraqiya coalition; and a Shiite coalition known as the Iraqi National Alliance. The Kurds, though divided, appeared poised to finish strongly as well, they said, leaving Iraq’s political map far more ambiguous than just weeks ago.

Although officials said al-Maliki appeared to have a plurality in returns so far, his rivals in the Shiite coalition and Allawi’s alliance trumpeted their gains — Allawi in Sunni regions and the Shiite coalition in rural southern provinces. And the early indications suggested that al-Maliki fell short of the mandate he might have needed to guide negotiations over a coalition government that he could lead. At the very least, the showing could weaken his caretaker government during the months of negotiations that will follow the final results, which electoral officials expect by the end of March.

Al-Maliki has not appeared in public since the election. He entered the hospital on Wednesday for a two-hour surgery to remove a cyst in his stomach, officials said. The government confirmed the operation on Thursday, saying that he had returned to work.

After the last parliamentary election in December 2005, political leaders clashed for more than five months in an effort to form a new government, a period of indecision and confusion that allowed insurgents to gain strength and religious tension to worsen. Tens of thousands were killed in the sectarian fighting that followed, and many have worried that while Iraq is more peaceful, any transition will prove fraught with danger.

“We may witness long months of problems and bargaining,” said Hazim al-Nuaimi, a political analyst. “This is the bad face of liberalism.”