BAGHDAD, Feb 6 – Allies of Nuri al-Maliki triumphed in Iraq’s weekend elections, preliminary results showed on Thursday, giving the prime minister a popular mandate after fiercely contested polls in the war-torn nation.,
Candidates backed by Maliki dominated in Baghdad and in eight of the country’s nine Shiite provinces, in a huge vote of confidence for the premier, whose standing has steadily grown at home and abroad in the past year.
Just over half of Iraqis voted on Saturday in the provincial elections, which was seen as a vital test of the country’s progress since a US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein from power almost six years ago.
Maliki, a Shiite, did not stand in the election but threw his backing behind candidates from the country’s State of Law Coalition, and their win is likely to reverberate through Iraqi politics as parliamentary elections draw closer.
The preliminary tally released by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission showed that the coalition had a resounding success in Baghdad, achieving 38 percent of the vote, with its nearest rival stuck on nine percent.
In Iraq’s third largest and oil-wealthy province of Basra, Maliki’s allies scored 37 percent, with the runners-up lagging on 12 percent.
About 90 percent of the votes cast in Saturday’s election have been counted, electoral commission administration chief Qassim Abudi told a press briefing in Baghdad.
The election, held in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, was widely seen as a referendum on Maliki’s performance as premier, and was praised as a vital step forward by world leaders including new US President Barack Obama.
The stability of Iraq has been at the forefront of Obama’s early moves on foreign policy, as he is keen to redeploy American soldiers to Afghanistan which he sees as the front line against Al-Qaeda.
Tension was high ahead of the announcement of the results amid allegations of fraud and intimidation among rival political parties in Sunni Arab-dominated areas, which saw security forces placed on high alert.
The accusations in Anbar, once the hotbed of a fierce anti-US insurgency, were serious enough for Deputy Prime Minister Rafaa al-Issawi to call on Wednesday for a recount.
Maliki’s standing has grown in the past 12 months as he has presented a secular national agenda in response to the sectarianism that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2007.
Last year he won plaudits for taking a tough stance in negotiations over a key security agreement with Washington that will see US troops leave the country by the end of 2011.
He also ordered Iraqi forces in 2008 to take on Shiite militiamen in hotspots such as Basra, Maysan and Diyala provinces as well as Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City.
The militants were eventually subdued after weeks of fighting that killed hundreds.
The military campaign followed the success of the American military’s 2007 "surge," which saw a large increase in US troop numbers begin to neutralise the fierce Sunni and Shiite sectarianism that had crippled Iraq.
Disaffection with the country’s religious parties seemed to be reflected in Thursday’s results, which saw them take heavy losses.
The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the largest Shiite party, was swept from its leading position, losing control of seven of the 10 provinces it won in elections four years ago.
Saturday’s elections were seen as a sign of progress as they passed without major violence and were hailed as a political milestone for the future of Iraq, ahead of national polls due at the end of the year or early in 2010.
However, the 51 percent turnout was lower than the 55.7 percent seen four years ago, amid voter disillusion with local governments which have broadly failed to provide voters with basic services.
But participation among Sunni Arabs was high, in stark contrast to 2005 when they boycotted the ballot en masse, infuriated by the invasion that ousted Saddam.
Maliki’s bloc did not fare well in Sunni-dominated provinces though, winning only three percent of the vote in Salaheddin, less in Nineveh and not competing in Anbar.
Councils each appoint a governor and oversee finance and reconstruction, with a combined budget of 2.4 billion dollars.