Within minutes of the final election tally on Friday, a remote-controlled car bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque in south Baghdad killing seven people and wounding 22, while a new ultimatum came from the captors of US journalist Jill Carroll threatening to kill her if their demands are not met by 26 February.

Adel al-Lami, the chief election commissioner, read the final certified results of the polls, which were unchanged from provisional ones announced on 20 January.

Friday's figures for the 275-member parliament gave 128 seats to the Shia alliance, 53 to the Kurdish Alliance, and 80 to the Joint Council for National Action, an alliance of Sunni and secular groups.

The remainder were shared by small parties, most representing ethnic minorities.

Political booster

Boosted by its own results and by the support of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and two MPs close to him, the Shia alliance, which is dominated by religious parties, will select its prime ministerial candidate on Saturday.

Shia leaders will elect their PM
candidate on Saturday

The two main competitors are the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, of the al-Dawa Party and Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Political parties had filed 24 complaints against the results, which were examined by the Transitional Electoral Panel. Al-Lami said "these did not change the results".

The new parliament, which will have more than 25% women MPs, is expected to convene within the next 15 days.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, welcomed the publication of the final results.

Loyalty to Iraq

"We hope that this will be a government based on national unity, formed without regard to sectarianism, committed to peace and with capable ministers who place loyalty to Iraq above that of loyalty to faction," Khalilzad said.

"These ministers should be dedicated to the defence of Iraqi democracy, not to party militias."

Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, also welcomed the results, saying they were "a decisive step on the road to establishing a strong democracy".

"It is now up to the politicians of all communities to work together to form an effective and representative government," he said, pledging Britain and the international community's full support.