BAGHDAD - Iraqi leaders will begin staking their claims to power after an election that brought out Iraqis in overwhelming numbers to elect a government.

Results may take days, while talks on a coalition government reconciling ethnic and sectarian divisions may last for weeks.

Yesterday's largely peaceful election for Iraq's first full-term government since US forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003 was only slightly disrupted by violence and marked the last stage of a US timetable to establish democratic institutions.

Wooing Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam away from revolt and into the political process has been a crucial part of that policy and the poll will raise hopes in Washington that a stable government can lead eventually to a withdrawal of US troops.

Turnout was at least 67 per cent, Election Commission chief Hussein Hendawi told Reuters, much higher than the 58 per cent seen in the January 30 vote for an interim assembly.

"This is a day of freedom for us," said Selima Khalif, an elderly woman voting in the poor southern province of Maysan.

"We are so happy. The most important thing we need is security. We want our children to get a better life."

Some voting irregularities were reported and must be investigated by the Independent Electoral Commission before final results come out, possibly in two weeks, officials said.

But Ashraf Qazi, UN envoy to Iraq, said preliminary results could be known within days after what he said appeared to have been a successful election.

This would clear the way for a period of horse-trading among the leading blocs before a new coalition government is formed.

"Since no single party will have a majority there will be a need for a very broad-based coalition," US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player in the process, told Reuters.

"There's many other steps to come. It's important to keep up the momentum."

Once a coalition government is formed, the first task of the new parliament is to address Sunni grievances over the constitution, passed with Shi'ite and Kurdish votes in an October referendum. Another challenge is building up Iraqi security forces so foreign troops can go home.

Informal polling by Reuters around the country showed the ruling Shi'ite Islamist Alliance and their Kurdish allies still dominant in their southern and northern bases respectively.

But there also seemed to be a strong turnout in favour of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who heads a secular slate with candidates from across Iraq's sectarian divides and has sought to split the previously dominant Islamist Shi'ite vote.

Iraq analyst Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group think-tank in Amman said: "Sunnis have supported this not because they are converted to the electoral process but because they hope for influence to roll back what they see as an Iranian advance in Iraq.

"And if they don't, they're going to go back to what got them here in the first place, the insurgency. And that's going to make it very difficult for American troops to leave."