By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched his post-election bid to hold on to power for a third term on Thursday, saying Iraq had "paid the price in blood" for disunity and calling on rivals to back his bloc to lead the country.
Iraq held a democratic national vote in the absence of foreign troops for the first time ever on Wednesday, despite levels of violence unseen since the darkest days of its 2005-08 civil war and a revived al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency.
Maliki, a member of the Shi'ite majority, addressed reporters with a confident winner's air and praised high reported turnout figures as a victory over insurgents who had vowed to kill anyone who voted.
The final result will not be clear for weeks. As in past Iraqi elections, parties with sectarian and ethnic agendas are expected to lead the field, with no group coming close to a majority in the 328-seat parliament. Maliki's State of Law bloc is competing against an alliance of two major rival Shi'ite factions to be the largest group, while parties representing Sunnis and Kurds will hold the balance of power.
After the last vote in 2010, a year before U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, it took nine months for Maliki to cobble together a coalition to keep power, leaving the country in a state of political turmoil.
"The whole world was astonished by this turnout. It is admired and evidence of courage," a confident Maliki told reporters on Thursday of the election, dismissing reports of irregularities as minor.
Political opponents who fought him during the campaign should now be ready to work with his State of Law bloc, he said.
"We paid a price in blood" for past disunity, he said. "I say: 'Come with us until the government is formed. Let us move... We have to start a new page. We should be responsible in government and parliament to solve the many problems."
He denied he was personally seeking to hold onto power, but said it was his duty to continue to serve if asked by his bloc.
"I can't betray the people and retreat."
Asked how long it would take to form a new government, he said it would depend on negotiations with other groups. He hoped it would be as soon as possible but feared it would take months.
Maliki also said he hoped to form a new coalition that would
support his agenda fully, unlike in 2010 when he was forced to include opponents he blamed for sabotaging his plans.
Maliki's allies say they believe he has won more than 90 seats, which would allow him to dictate terms to his two main Shi'ite rivals, the Islamic Council of Iraq and the movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
The two groups say they want Maliki out of office, arguing that his war against Sunni insurgents is failing and his bullying of political opponents has fueled violence. They say they can replace Maliki if they win close to 70 seats and he wins only a little more than they do.
Iraq's Sunni insurgency, largely defeated before the Americans left in 2011, returned with a vengeance last year, with attacks killing hundreds of civilians each month and fighters seizing control of towns in the west of the country.
Shi'ite-led government forces have launched battles against the insurgents, and Shi'ite militia - once held in check by Maliki - have resurfaced to carry out revenge attacks.
The United Nations said 750 Iraqis were killed and another 1,541 were wounded in violence in April, not including the ongoing fight in the west.
Wednesday's vote was nevertheless more peaceful than in past years, although bombers killed 12 people at polling stations in Sunni areas north of Baghdad.
No voting was held in the city of Fallujah in Western Anbar province, now in the grip of Sunni fighters from the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is leading insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunnis had difficulty voting and some polling stations were closed in other Sunni areas.
Allocation of seats by province means many Sunni areas will be represented even if violence suppressed turnout there. But some Sunni leaders have refused to enter a new government with Maliki, raising the prospect that a coalition would exclude them and feed resentment that encourages the insurgency.
(Reporting by Ned Parker; Editing by Peter Graff)