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Maliki Supporters Post Election Gains
Preliminary Results Show Iraq Leaning Toward a Strong Central Government

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.

Maliki's supporters had sought to cast their program in nationalist terms, advocating a strong central government in Baghdad. While still an avowedly Islamist party, it stressed more the rule of law than religious imagery. That contrasted with the agenda of the Supreme Council, which had advocated a federal region for the south modeled on the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. The Supreme Council still seemed dogged, too, by the perception that it was unduly influenced by Iran, where it was created in 1982. Of the large parties, it remains possibly Iraq's most ardently sectarian.

Before the vote, the Supreme Council said it was virtually guaranteed to win four provinces outright -- Najaf, Babel, Qadisiyah and Dhi Qar -- and emerge as the single biggest bloc in the rest. Although numbers could change as final results are tallied, Dawa appeared to emerge in the lead in every province but Karbala, where an independent candidate was vying with Dawa for the largest number of votes.

Without citing numbers, the Supreme Council said in a statement that it had placed first or second in 11 of the 14 provinces. But even at this early stage, its leaders acknowledged that their advocacy of federalism and decentralization may have hurt their chances.

"The majority of Iraqis reject federalism," said Maeen al-Khadumi, the head of Baghdad's provincial council and a Supreme Council official.

Two lists of nominally independent candidates backed by Sadr appeared to fare well in Najaf, Babil, Dhi Qar, Maysan and other provinces. That is likely to make Sadr's followers key players in the inevitable coalition-building that will follow the seating of the councils.

Despite disenchantment and frustration with religious parties, often pronounced loudly in the streets, Shiite Islamist forces -- Dawa, the Supreme Council and Sadr -- appear to still have a hold on politics in the region.

Only in Basra did the secular nationalist list of Allawi, the former prime minister, appear to win significant support. According to an election official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Allawi was winning about a quarter of the votes, far behind Dawa's two-thirds. Sadr's allies were in third, the official said.

Baghdad

Inside the High Electoral Commission building on Monday, initial results from individual polling stations in Baghdad and Babil province, south of the capital, flashed across a television screen.

In the first 11 stations, Maliki's State of Law electoral list led the votes by as much as 60 percent, Sadr's allies came in second and the Supreme Council third. Allawi's party picked up a handful of votes, along with other smaller parties, including Sunni ones.

If hundreds of other Baghdad stations report similar results, Maliki and his Dawa party could take control of perhaps the most powerful provincial council in Iraq.

Since 2005, the Supreme Council has controlled 28 seats on the 57-member council. Dawa has had four. Sadr's loyalists held three and a smattering of other Shiites and independents held the rest. The sole Sunni is a communist.

Khadumi, the Supreme Council politician, said he now expects his party to get only eight seats on the council and is already considering an alliance with Maliki.

"Maliki used his title as prime minister to support his candidates and promise the people many things," Khadumi lamented.

Senior Dawa officials predicted they will now control as much as 55 percent of the seats on the Baghdad council. "The results of the election show that Iraqis support a strong central government and good local governments," said Muhsin al-Rubae, a Dawa senior official. "These results reflect the confidence of people in Maliki."

Nineveh

In northern Nineveh province, Sunni Arabs who campaigned on a promise to curb Kurdish expansion and influence appear poised to take control of the provincial council, which is currently in the hands of Kurds.

"People got fed up with the current political faces," said Athiel Abdul Aziz al-Nujaifi, the head of al-Hadba-a party and the province's presumed next governor.

Nujaifi said al-Hadba-a got 60 percent of the vote. Kurds conceded the group's victory, but they disputed that it won by such a large margin and estimated that they would keep at least a dozen slots on the 37-seat provincial council.

Nujaifi said the new council would pressure the Kurdish regional government to release Arab inmates it has detained in recent years and would strive to assert control in areas that the Kurdish government wants to annex to the autonomous region.

But Khisrow Goran, the province's deputy governor and leader of the Nineveh Brotherhood, the rival Kurdish coalition, said electoral turnout in the disputed areas will serve as proof that the overwhelming majority of its residents want to become part of the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

"Eighty percent or more voted for our list," Goran said.

Anbar

In Anbar, once the most lethal theater for the U.S. military in the country, tribal leaders sought to transform the support they won for defeating the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq into political capital they could wield in the provincial council. There were mounting signs of friction Monday among Sunni groups, prompting authorities to impose a nighttime curfew.

Most electoral lists courted the tribes. The Islamic Party, which controlled the provincial council after the 2005 vote, joined with tribal figures, including Amr Abdel-Jabbar, deemed by many as Anbar's preeminent sheik. Even the list of the Awakening, a tribal gathering backed by the U.S. military that helped defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, included a handful of nominally independent candidates that its critics said belonged to the Iraqi Islamic Party. Another list was led by Sheik Hamid al-Hais, a former Awakening leader who campaigned against both his previous Awakening allies and the Islamic Party.

Najib al-Ani, a representative of a network monitoring the vote, said in Fallujah that the Islamic Party-affiliated list was winning 40 percent of the vote, the Awakening 30 percent, Allawi 9 percent and prominent Sunni politician Saleh Mutlaq 6 percent. In Ramadi, the provincial capital, Ani put the Islamic Party list at 37.5 percent, with the rest of the votes divided among other lists.

Ahmad Abu Risha, whose brother Abdel Sittar founded the Awakening and was assassinated in 2007, accused the Islamic Party of rigging the vote, and Hais threatened violence to stop the Islamic Party from taking power again in the provincial council.

"After all our sacrifices against al-Qaeda, we are not ready to go and stay home," Hais said. "If the Islamic Party returns to the city, we will turn the streets of Ramadi into graveyards for them just as we made a graveyard here for al-Qaeda."

Electoral officials were reluctant to divulge results for fear of igniting violence.

"I can't give any numbers because one statement might kill innocents in Anbar province," said Khalid Rejab, head of the Anbar electoral commission.

Special correspondents Qais Mizher, Zaid Sabah, Aziz Alwan and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Najaf, Basra, Fallujah, Baqubah and Mosul contributed to this report.

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