BAGHDAD — Final election results released Thursday echoed what already was known: The political party of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki won big in provincial polls Jan. 31, a victory stemming from his crackdown on sectarian violence in the war-torn nation.
Preliminary results released early this month showed that Maliki's State of Law coalition won a plurality in nine of the 14 provinces that voted, more than any other party. The success highlighted that voters want a strong central and secular-minded government, marking a departure from the religious parties that had enjoyed power. The incumbents, the Iranian-allied Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, performed poorly.
The success of Maliki's State of Law coalition — highlighted in oil-rich Basra province, where his party locked 20 out of 35 seats — will boost the prime minister's popularity ahead of parliamentary elections slated for later this year. Maliki's party also took 28 out of 57 seats in Baghdad province.
Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission estimated voter turnout at 51 percent.
Maliki enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past year after he successfully cracked down on Shiite Muslim militias in Baghdad and southern Iraq. At the same time, the Islamist prime minister redrew himself as a pragmatic leader bent on stamping out sectarian violence and divisions.
In one of few surprising details announced Thursday, Maliki's party won eight seats, the most of any party, in the somewhat mixed-sect Babil province.
In the Sunni Muslim-majority province of Salahuddin, the State of Law coalition won two seats. The Iraqi Accord Front and the Iraqi National List came out on top.
"We expected to get more, even though we didn't have a good campaign," said Walweed al Hilli, a member of Maliki's Dawa party. "We focused on other provinces."
The Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq got clobbered, losing big in much of the southern provinces it once governed. The party has advocated creating a semiautonomous region in the south similar to Kurdistan in the north. Such a division would give the party control over the region, which houses many of Iraq's oil fields and its only seaports.
One Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq member attributed the loss to several factors, ranging from what he called the Independent High Electoral Commission's bad planning to voters' ignorance of governance.
"There is something wrong with IHEC," parliamentarian Hadi al Amari said. Amari cited curfews and voter confusion as reasons that people couldn't reach the polls and pick his party.
He also said that voters didn't realize that reconstruction focused too much on Baghdad instead of the provinces. Sectarian clashes in the south chased away building efforts and services suffered, he added.
"Somehow we lost for that," Amari said.
Two slates backed by the party of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr finished closely behind Maliki's party. One of the two slates, the Independent Free Men Trend, secured six of 28 seats in Najaf province.
The Shiite-dominated Karbala province voted in favor of a former member of the Sunni-led Baath party, which ruled the country under the despot Saddam Hussein. Former Karbala Mayor Yousef Majid al Habboubi, who's a secular Shiite, won, voters said, because of his reputation as an accomplished public servant. The State of Law coalition tied in second place with the Hope of Rafidain party with nine seats.
In Anbar province, once a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, final results may have been a sigh of relief to some. Sunni Arab tribal sheiks, winning with eight of 29 seats, had threatened violence if the rivals whom they accused of fraud proved triumphant.
Election officials nullified 30 ballot boxes, most in Anbar, after finding evidence of fraud. The number is tiny compared with the thousands of polls where Iraqis voted.
The mostly Arab Nineveh province in the north could turn volatile in the coming months. The Kurdish incumbents lost to the Sunni Arab nationalist party al Hadbaa, which took 48.8 percent of the vote, giving them 19 of 37 seats. Arab-Kurdish tensions have run high in the region, which the country's recent security gains have eluded.
More than 14,400 candidates vied for some 440 seats in the provincial elections, making for a lively yet fiercely competitive campaign. Most of the office seekers vowed to improve public services in the aftermath of the internal war that followed the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam in 2003.
World leaders, including President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, hailed the vote, which was free of major violence.
The provincial posts are charged with naming governors, overseeing local security forces and influencing local appointments of ministry officials.
niel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY