The bloc led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is heading for a commanding lead in nationwide elections held last month, putting him in a strong position to secure a third term in office, according to preliminary results released Monday.

With at least 92 seats in the 328-member parliament, Maliki’s State of Law coalition was far ahead of its nearest rival, the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which won 29 seats. Another Shiite group, the Ahrar coalition loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was in third place with 28 seats.

Secular and Sunni groups trailed, in contrast to the 2010 elections, when a bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi won the most seats, narrowly edging out Maliki. That bloc has since split at least three ways, and even taken together, the performance of those factions did not come close to their earlier showing.

The election results offered something of a personal vindication for Maliki, whom rivals have widely vilified as authoritarian. He has not only won more seats than he did in 2010 but also bettered his personal vote count, with more than 700,000 people casting ballots for him in Baghdad, where he led his group’s list of candidates.

Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties have talked of teaming up to unseat him, which would be feasible if they managed to agree with one another. Mithal al-Alusi, who won a seat and is a member of the small Civil Democratic Alliance, said the outcome proved that most Iraqis do not want Maliki.

“It is time for change,” Alusi said. “He can form the government using money and his mafia structures, but I don’t believe he can do it if we show respect for democratic structures.”

But the size of the Maliki bloc’s lead is going to make it hard for any other coalition to emerge as a viable alternative, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He looks like a very obvious front-runner,” Knights said. “It will be a difficult, uphill struggle for the opposition now.”

So fragmented is the landscape, however, that it is likely to take months for Maliki to muster the 163 votes he needs in parliament to form a government. More than 35 groups have won seats, and the final tally could change after the results are verified, which could take several weeks. State television was reporting slightly different results from those given by the independent election commission, showing Maliki with at least 95 seats.

Many thorny issues will have to be addressed to bring the other factions on board, including the question of who will be Iraq’s next president.

Under an informal agreement reached in the wake of Iraq’s first democratic elections, in 2005, the prime minister is a Shiite, the president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. But the incumbent president, Jalal Talabani, is sick and in any case limited to two terms, leaving a question mark over whether the arrangement will continue.

The Kurds are in a dispute with Maliki over the fate of their expanding oil production and have threatened not to participate in the government unless the matter is resolved. Iraq’s Sunnis, meanwhile, are unhappy with Maliki’s aggressive crackdown against insurgents in Sunni provinces, where the violence partly suppressed the Sunni turnout.

In 2010, the government was formed only after Iran interceded to negotiate a deal between Maliki and the Sadrists. This time, regional and international powers — including the United States, which retains influence over Baghdad through its expanding support for the government’s counterterrorism efforts — are likely to become heavily involved in the bargaining process.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital welcomed the result, calling it “another milestone in the democratic development of Iraq.”

“We encourage all political entities to conduct talks in a spirit of cooperation and respect for the will of the voters,” it added in a statement.