Maliki Supporters Post Election Gains

Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully on Jan. 31 in the country's first provincial elections since 2005.
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Anthony Shadid and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 2 -- Iraq appears headed toward a reapportionment of power that favors the emergence of a strong central government, with supporters of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki showing strong returns in Saturday's elections, according to early tallies seen by election and party officials.

Preliminary results from provincial elections, the first national balloting in four years, are not expected for several days, but election and party officials across Iraq said that politicians allied with Maliki have posted large gains in the capital, Baghdad, and in southern Iraq, the country's Shiite heartland. Such results would strengthen Maliki's standing and that of his Dawa party ahead of parliamentary elections set for this year.

Some Sunni Arabs also did well, including established politicians and newly empowered leaders of mainly tribal groups initially organized and funded by the United States to combat the Sunni insurgency. U.S. officials have wanted to see the emergence of a central government that would maintain Iraq's integrity, but some of the Sunni leaders who appear to have gained power have created fiefdoms and resisted rule from Baghdad.

The results also appear poised to touch off new political battles. Tensions flared Monday in Anbar province, where Sunni tribal leaders threatened to take up arms, accusing religious Sunnis who run the provincial government of electoral fraud. Authorities swiftly imposed an overnight curfew in the province.

"We have ordered our forces to confront any civilian carrying weapons," said Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Asal, the provincial police chief. "And the American forces will provide us with air cover in case that is needed."

The elections in 14 of 18 provinces were held to select the members of powerful provincial councils, similar to state legislatures in the United States, that dispense patronage locally.

The parties that appeared to have gained the most votes had emphasized nationalism in an effort to appeal to Iraqis disillusioned by violence, rule by religious parties and lack of basic services. Maliki portrayed himself as secular to many voters, even though Dawa has long promoted the establishment of a government guided by Islamic law.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement also appeared to make gains in some Shiite areas, competing strongly with his main rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a U.S. ally. Sadr ordered his followers to vote for two independent electoral lists, presenting an image of being above politics.

In urban areas such as Baghdad there appeared to be greater support for secular groups, but in rural areas religious parties continued to dominate, highlighting the ideological divide in the nation.

Iraqis also appeared to favor political strongmen they believe can bring security. Maliki, once widely viewed as weak, drew support for deploying government forces against Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City enclave last year. Iraqis also voted for former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was once an influential member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and has gained a reputation for having an iron fist in the mold of Hussein's.

Southern Iraq

Since 2005, southern Iraq, with the exception of Basra, has been dominated largely by three forces: Maliki's Dawa party, the Supreme Council and followers of Sadr. Those forces appeared to have retained their presence on the ground, with a telling shift: The Supreme Council's dominance may give way to Dawa, which was winning the largest number of votes in all but one of southern Iraq's nine provinces, according to party activists, election officials and observers.

If proved by final results, Dawa's success would stand as a startling victory for Maliki's attempt to translate his stature as a leader credited, rightly or wrongly, with restoring order in Iraq into grass-roots power for his party.

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