Mr Maliki's alliance is well-placed with partial results in from all Iraq's provinces
Nouri Maliki has strengthened his lead over main rival Iyad Allawi in Iraq's parliamentary elections, with partial results now in from all 18 provinces.
Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition is leading in seven provinces, including Baghdad and Shia-dominated Basra.
The alliance led by former PM Mr Allawi is ahead in five provinces, including oil-rich Kirkuk, where Kurdish parties were expected to win.
Complete results are not expected for at least another few days.
No single group is expected to win a majority in the Council of Representatives.
The BBC's Andrew North, in Baghdad, says talks on forming a new coalition government will now get under way in earnest - although this could easily take months.
SEATS AT STAKE IN PROVINCES
Sources: Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq
In Basra, Mr Maliki's coalition was clearly in the lead with 63% of the votes counted, Iraq's electoral commission said.
Correspondents say a win in the oil-rich province would boost the prime minister's chances of winning another term.
The partial figures put the Shia-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) second in Basra.
Iraqiya, the secular Shia-Sunni alliance led by Mr Allawi, came third.
State of Law is now ahead in seven of the 14 provinces where partial results have been released - including Basra, Baghdad, Najaf, Babil, Karbala and Muthanna.
Iraqiya leads in the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahuddin. With most of the votes counted, it was also unexpectedly ahead in oil-rich Kirkuk province where the Kurdistania alliance had been expected to win.
The INA is ahead in two predominantly Shia provinces - Misan and Qadisiya.
The Kurdistan Alliance, dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is leading as expected in Irbil and Dahuk.
Our correspondent says Mr Maliki's representatives are already talking with other parties on forming a new coalition government.
But allegations of fraud continue to hang over the process. Iraqiya has claimed ballots were dumped and vote counts were fabricated.
About 6,200 candidates from 86 factions stood in the election. Voter turnout was 62%, officials said, despite attacks that killed 38 people.
A credible election is seen as crucial to US military plans to end combat operations this August, seven years after the invasion.