BAGHDAD — The two rival groups gathered for separate victory parties in the streets of Ramadi in Anbar province, once the stamping ground of the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group. The tribal party fired off celebratory rounds from their Kalashnikov rifles and their opponents in the Iraqi Islamic Party offered a booming retort, like rowdy fans at a hockey match ready for a brawl.
The Iraqi police quickly slapped a curfew on the city Monday night, lifted only at dawn the next day. Their action helped defuse a possible full-on melee before the country's electoral commission had even finished a preliminary ballot count from Saturday's vote.
In the absence of results in Iraq, rumors swirl and parties, full of bluster and occasional bile, make competing claims of triumph as they grasp for victory in a land where politics can be a blood sport.
Faraj Haidari, head of the High Independent Electoral Commission, said on the U.S.-funded Al Hurra satellite news channel Tuesday that he did not expect a preliminary tally before Thursday afternoon at the earliest; some officials have said it could even be Friday. That hasn't stopped political leaders from declaring victory.
Anbar province's senior political leaders sounded a bit like action movie parodies as rumors spread that the Iraqi Islamic Party had won 43% of the provincial council seats.
The head of one of the most popular Sunni Arab tribal factions, Sheik Ahmed Buzaigh abu Risha, threatened to turn his guns on the electoral commission. "If the percentage is true, then we will transfer our entity from a political to a military one, to fight the Islamic Party and the commission," he warned.
A tribal rival to Abu Risha, Sheik Hameed Farhan Hays, weighed in with his own dose of machismo: "We have warned the electoral commission . . . if the provincial seats are given to the Islamic Party like before, then we will fight them and kick them out of Anbar."
If other political battles around the country aren't infused with quite the same high levels of testosterone, many Iraqi parties are rushing out victory claims with gusto worthy of Republicans and Democrats in 2000 battling it out over hanging chads in Florida. The front-running Shiite Muslim religious factions -- Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC -- have both insisted that they cleaned up from central to southern Iraq.
After SIIC's local leader in the southern port of Basra conceded that the party had lost to the Maliki-led Enforcing the Law slate, SIIC rushed out its own statement Monday claiming victory across much of southern and central Iraq, where it has ruled seven provinces since 2005. In Baghdad, at least one senior leader of the faction refused to recognize the possibility that it had lost in Basra.
"Preliminary results show that the Martyr of the Mihrab slate and the Independent Forces List [which constitute SIIC] have achieved either the first or second place in 11 out of 14 provinces," the party statement said.
Leaders of Dawa have also declared victory in Baghdad and cities across the south.
"The Enforcing the Law slate has succeeded in the majority of the middle and southern provinces," Dawa parliament member Ali Allaq told The Times on Tuesday. "We've gotten either first or second place in these provinces."
The unofficial tallies differ radically based on which party you ask.
In Najaf province, home to sacred pilgrimage sites, SIIC says it has tied with Dawa. In turn, Dawa says it has won, and supporters of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr also claim that they routed their fellow Shiite rivals. In Babil province, Dawa says it won 15 of the 30 seats and SIIC says it won 14, all in a field crowded with parties, and the list of claims and counterclaims goes on.
Cries of foul have also rung out. The Iraqi Islamic Party, accused of fraud by its foes in Sunni-dominated Anbar, now hints that Maliki's faction abused the prime minister's powers to win more seats in Baghdad.
To the north in Nineveh province, Arab and Kurdish parties have made bold claims with the aplomb of ace poker players trying to unnerve their opponents.
The Arab nationalist Hadba party says it swept the province with 60% of the vote, with hopes of gaining an easy path to appointing Nineveh's governor.
The electoral commission has tried to swat down such grandiose claims.
"Statements or speculations issued by this or that side are inaccurate and we are not concerned with it," said Nineveh commission chief Abdul-Khaliq Dabagh.
Some lawmakers are fed up with all the posturing.
"The commission has not announced anything. There are just rumors circulating and everyone is going crazy. This is incorrect," said Maysoon Damluji, a lawmaker from the secular Iraqi National List. "It is all speculation, and most of it is inaccurate."
Times staff writer Raheem Salman, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Basra, Hillah, Samarra and the province of Nineveh contributed to this report.