BAGHDAD — The pro-Iranian party that's dominated Iraq's political life since the U.S.-sponsored elections in 2005 suffered a huge loss in last Saturday's provincial elections, while Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's political party was a comfortable front-runner in a majority of Iraq's provinces, according to preliminary results Thursday.
The defeat of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq suggests that many voters, particularly in Iraq's Shiite Muslim south, abandoned a party that favored decentralization and is widely viewed as an arm of neighboring Iran in favor of a nationalist party that advocates a strong central state.
Maliki's party won a plurality in nine of the 14 provinces that held elections.
The Supreme Council's loss was most significant in the nation's capital, where Maliki's State of Law coalition captured 38 percent of the votes to 5.4 percent for the Supreme Council of Iraq, the preliminary results showed. Maliki's party also did exceptionally well in Basra, the commercial center in southern Iraq, winning 37 percent, well ahead of the second-placed ruling Fadhila (Virtue) party, which won 3.2 percent.
Maliki's Islamist Dawa party had been the weakest of Iraq's Shiite parties. Now he's the most powerful Shiite political leader in the country, and a figure who's won both Sunni Muslim and Shiite support.
Maliki's party won the most votes in all of the nine highly contested southern provinces but one. He failed, however, to secure an absolute majority anywhere, not surprising in view of the dozens of parties that were competing. The Supreme Council of Iraq, by comparison, was knocked off its throne as the most powerful Shiite party in the country, taking second and third places in most of the southern provinces.
"They lost because they were about to create a ministate from the nine (predominantly Shiite) provinces in southern Iraq. Even the Shiites dislike this idea," said Sami al Askari, a Shiite legislator who's close to Maliki. "They have close ties to the Iranians, and most Iraqis don't like the Iranians."
Maliki's popularity has risen over the past year after his military crackdown down on Shiite militias in southern Iraq and Baghdad. An Islamist, Maliki recast himself as a national leader and promised to build a strong central government. His critics charge that he's poised to become a dictator.
"If we correctly interpret the message sent by the voter, then many things will change," said Dhia al Shakarchi, a prominent member of the Dawa party. "Frankly, the people did not vote for Dawa, they voted for Maliki, and that is because he has distanced himself lately from the principle of politicizing religion. He has turned away from the Supreme Council."
Maliki was urgently summoned on Thursday to the holy city of Najaf by Iraq's top Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Officials close to Sistani and Maliki's Dawa party said that Sistani wanted to discuss the possibility of Maliki forming an alliance with the Supreme Council.
Maliki sought the backing of tribes across the country — Sunnis and Shiites alike — by appealing to them as an Iraqi nationalist and with government cash under the guise of paying them to maintain security. His bold military gamble last year in Basra and Baghdad, which strengthened the authority of the central government, appears to have drawn further appeal as an alternative to the Supreme Council of Iraq, which sought to combine the predominantly Shiite provinces into a more autonomous Shiite state in the south resembling the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
"It wasn't just about local issues; it was about federalism versus central government," Askari said. "Maliki showed himself as an Iraqi leader, not a Shiite Islamist. . . . The Iraqis are looking for a strong leader."
In the western province of Anbar, the Awakening Council — the group of Sunni tribal leaders who were backed by the U.S. military to weed out al Qaida in Iraq — threw its weight behind Maliki.
"We're afraid of dividing the country. We wish the government would boycott Iran and close the borders," said Abdul Jabar Abu Risha, a founding member of the Awakening Council in Anbar whose followers are running for provincial representation in the Sunni west. "We have trust in Nouri al Maliki."
The preliminary results were released Thursday evening at a news conference in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified 5.6-square-mile area in Baghdad. They covered 90 percent of the voting population in the 14 provinces, which excluded the predominantly Kurdish north. The other 10 percent come from Iraqi troops, hospital workers, prisoners and others who were required to vote early.
The provincial elections last Saturday saw a crowded race of more than 14,400 candidates vying for some 440 seats. Many of the office seekers pledged to help rebuild Iraq after the internal war that followed the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The provincial councils are responsible for controlling local security forces, naming governors and influencing the local appointments of ministry officials. Their power is limited; the parliament in Baghdad can depose leaders, and money is allocated from the central budget.
In Nineveh province, the Sunni Arab nationalist party al Hadbaa won with 48.8 percent of the vote, ousting Kurdish parties, which had been in control.
"We are not surprised," said Sheik Abdullah al Yawar, a Hadbaa party leader. "We are confident, we have patriotism and we thank God for everything."
The Kurds have 31 of 41 seats on the outgoing provincial council.
In Anbar province, the results were so close that it was too difficult to determine who'd emerge as the Sunni leader of the west.
The Awakening Council led by Ahmed Abu Risha made its debut as a political entity and took about 17 percent in the preliminary results, one of the top winners. Tensions are running high in the province, with Abu Risha and other Sunni Arab tribal leaders accusing the incumbent, the Iraqi Islamic Party, of fraud.
They showed McClatchy more than 80 polling-result forms that didn't match the final vote count that was sent to Baghdad. The electoral commission is investigating.
Despite fears that the results would spark violence Abu Risha urged his followers to remain calm.
"We will not make your blood cheap," he said at his guesthouse Thursday in the provincial capital. "All of you are relatives. Do not kill your cousins. I want self-restraint, and I don't want one bullet."
The top vote-getters in Anbar — Abu Risha and Saleh al Mutlaq, the leader of the Gathering for the Iraqi National project — plan to announce an alliance Friday.
In Basra, where political parties battled for control of the oil hub in the south, the Islamic Fadhila (virtue) party lost control of the only province it had dominated. The party has 12 seats on the provincial council now but received only 3.2 percent in the preliminary count. Maliki's party swept with 37 percent of the vote.
Final results aren't expected for at least two weeks.
(Daniel reports for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondents Qassim Zein in Najaf and Ali Abass in Mosul contributed to this article.)
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