BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 3 - Preliminary election returns released Thursday by Iraqi authorities showed that 72 percent of the 1.6 million votes counted so far from Sunday's election went to an alliance of Shiite parties dominated by religious groups with strong links to Iran. Only 18 percent went to a group led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who favors strong ties to the United States. Few votes went to Sunni candidates.
Although the early votes were drawn only from Baghdad and from five southern provinces where the Shiite parties were expected to score strongly, and from only 10 percent of the 5,216 polling stations, the scale of the vote for both religious and secular Shiites underscored the probability of a crushing triumph and a historic shift from decades of Sunni minority rule in Iraq.
The religious alliance, an amalgam of political parties and independents forged by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful religious leader, took nearly 1.2 million votes, more than a third of them in Baghdad, against about 295,000 for the coalition led by Dr. Allawi.
The scale of the lead held by the Shiites and the possibility of their coalition with the Kurds seemed certain to cause anxiety among Sunnis, who largely boycotted the election and remain deeply suspicious of the emerging Shiite dominance.
Indeed, some Sunni leaders said the Shiites' strong showing so far validated the deep sense of alienation felt by the Sunnis.
"The Shia were determined and encouraged their supporters to vote and to register, and the Sunnis didn't care that much, either out of fear or apathy," said Adnan Pachachi, 82, a foreign minister in the years before Saddam Hussein and a prominent Sunni leader. "This is the story really."
But signs also emerged on Thursday that some Sunni leaders were ready to involve themselves at least in a limited way in the political debate. The leaders of 13 mostly Sunni political parties that stayed out of the election had agreed Monday that they would take part in writing the constitution, the next step in the establishment of a new Iraqi state.
Election officials emphasized that the results were preliminary, and pleaded for caution in extrapolating from them. They noted that there were no returns from the Sunni heartland and that the returns were primarily from Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. And in a turnabout, the officials said they would not announce a figure for the overall voter turnout until all votes were tabulated next week.
The early returns drew a flurry of concern from the main secular groups competing in the election.
In recent days Dr. Allawi has been trying to offer himself as a leader who can span Iraq's many ethnic and sectarian divides and head off moves by the religious Shiites to increase the role of religion in the country. The leaders of the religious alliance have pledged that Iraq will not be ruled by clerics, but they face pressure on religious issues from influential clerics.
With the Shiite coalition off to a commanding lead, some Iraqi leaders here speculated that Dr. Allawi might try to peel off some secular members of the religious alliance as he tried to assemble a coalition of his own. But the partial returns suggested he might have trouble doing so.
The partial returns prompted Shiite leaders to begin talks with the main Kurdish coalition for a possible alliance, which would become an overwhelming majority in the new 275-seat national assembly.
Though the Shiite leaders are confident of gaining a clear majority, the complex rules of Iraq's interim constitution will require two-thirds of the assembly votes to choose a new president and prime minister, and to adopt a permanent constitution, which will be needed before another election this year for an assembly with a full five-year term.
The first electoral results came in as a relative lull in the Sunni insurgency broke down.
The American military command said guerrillas had dragged Iraqi soldiers off a bus near Kirkuk late Wednesday and shot 12 of them dead. On Thursday, an ambush in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad killed 2 policemen, wounded 14 and left 36 others missing.
Two United States marines were killed Wednesday in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, the command said.
According to the partial returns, the religious alliance's support in the capital, in the provinces centered on two holy cities, Karbala and Najaf, and in three other Shiite provinces further south, Qadissiyah, Dhi Qar and Muthanna, represented about four votes for every one won by Dr. Allawi's group. The remainder of the vote in the six districts, less than 10 percent, was divided among 109 other parties.
The strong showing by the religious group, the United Iraqi Alliance, appeared especially in the partial returns for Baghdad, home to 6 million of Iraq's 28 million people and counted as a province in itself. Although Baghdad is a cosmopolitan city, with large populations of Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shiites, the religious alliance took 61 percent of the early vote in the capital, against about 25 percent for Dr. Allawi's group, known as the Iraqi List.
Only one other party took more than 1 percent of the first votes counted in Baghdad and the southern provinces, and that was another group with Shiite religious ties.
The group, the National Independent Elites and Cadres, which has strong links to Moktada al-Sadr, the young cleric who twice last year led uprisings against American forces, had 1.5 percent of the votes counted so far. In Baghdad, where the Sadr City neighborhood is Mr. Sadr's main bastion, the group took nearly 2 percent.
Other groups that had hoped to make a significant showing did not make much impact. A secular group known as the Independent Democratic Party, led by Mr. Pachachi, took less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the early vote.
The religious alliance's leader, Ayatollah Sistani, has tolerated the American presence in Iraq, but has consistently pushed for faster elections. Though the group's leaders have put just five clerics onto their list of 228 national assembly candidates, the coalition's two main partners, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, are religiously based and have close Iranian links from years of exile under Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds, whose precincts in the north have not been publicly counted, also turned out enthusiastically for Sunday's election. The main Kurdish alliance is expected to pick up a substantial share of the seats in the national assembly, perhaps as many as a third.
Despite the early signs of victory, the main concern of Shiite leaders on Thursday seemed to be holding their unwieldy group together. At Ayatollah Sistani's urging, the alliance fought the elections with an awkward mix of candidates, some secular, some religious. About half its candidates had no party affiliation. "We have to cement the list so it does not disintegrate," said Adnan Ali, a senior leader of the Dawa Party, as he hurried past with a tabulation of the initial returns.
The group led by Mr. Pachachi, the former foreign minister, was one of the groups that appeared likely to improve its showing when votes from the west and north start flowing in, from areas where there are far fewer Shiites, a large Sunni population and, in the larger towns and cities, a strong secular element. But the largest gainer from the northern vote is almost certain to be the Kurdish alliance, which is expected to garner a rush of votes from the three Kurdish provinces, perhaps enough to push it into second place in the final results.
Iraq's constitution is to be submitted to voters later this year. Under the ratification rules, it can be defeated if two-thirds of the voters in any three of the 18 provinces vote against it. The Sunnis are a majority in three provinces. "We think our participation could help improve the security situation, by getting all part of Iraq involved," said Amar Wajid, a spokesman for the Islamic Party of Iraq, a largely Sunni political party that boycotted the elections.
Election commission officials, announcing the votes at a news conference, said it would take another week to compile final results with the complex system of tabulation that has been adopted in a country that has held no elections even approximately like Sunday's in more than 50 years. After the voting, the commission's initial estimate of turnout was that about eight million people had voted, out of a potential electorate of 14.2 million, a turnout of about 57 percent.
A member of the election commission, Safwat Rashid, a 59-year-old lawyer from Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish region, was evasive about the turnout, implying it might end up significantly lower than the initial estimate. The figure has been see-sawing as a result of protests being fielded by the commission about irregularities in the voting and in some of the counting. There was also a dispute in Mosul involving large numbers of would-be voters in mainly Kurdish districts who had found polling centers closed, or with too few ballot papers to accommodate an unexpectedly large number of voters. "Only God Almighty knows the final turnout now," Mr. Rashid said.
In Baghdad, where the returns showed 570,000 votes counted, the commission said they represented 25 percent of the total number cast; in Najaf and Karbala, it put the figure at about 45 percent, with similarly fractional returns for the other southern provinces.
Another reason for caution, the commission said, was that the Baghdad figures gave no indication where the votes had been cast, in a city where many neighborhoods have a strong preponderance of Sunnis or Shiites. Away from the news conference, election officials said most of the Baghdad votes came from polling stations in the city's eastern districts, where Shiites predominate.
Still more significant, the initial returns included no votes from the areas west and north of Baghdad, where the Sunni population is concentrated.
James Glanz and Iraqi staff members of The New York Times contributed reportingfor this article.