Allies of Iraq's US-backed prime minister appeared yesterday to have made gains in the provincial elections, rewarding groups credited with reining in insurgents and militias, according to unofficial projections.
Initial results from Saturday's landmark voting are not expected for days. But reports by Iraqi media and interviews by The Associated Press suggest candidates backing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had strong showings in the crucial Shia heartland in southern Iraq.
If the indications prove true, it would strengthen al-Maliki's hand ahead of national elections later this year and reflect a shift away from the more religious parties dominating the country.
Nationwide turnout was 51 percent, said Faraj al-Haidari, chairman of the election commission. It ranged from 40 percent in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq to 65 percent in the Salahuddin province, which includes the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
Final figures were not yet ready for the Baghdad area, but al-Haidari said initial reports placed it at about 40 percent.
Al-Maliki's supporters appeared to hold the lead in many areas of the south, including the key city of Basra and the Shia spiritual centre of Najaf, according to Iraq's private Al-Sharqiya television. The trend was supported by voter comments in Basra and other areas.
Many voters praised last year's government-backed crackdown that broke the Shia militia control in Basra and other areas.
"Al-Maliki ended the militiamen's reign of terror," said Faisal Hamadi, 58, after voting in Basra. "For this he deserves our vote."
Gains by al-Maliki's allies would come directly at the expense of the biggest Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is a senior partner in the government but has hinted it could make a bid to take the leadership in national elections later this year.
The Supreme Council has a strong base among Shia religious authorities - who are seen with suspicion by some Iraqis because of perceived ties to neighbouring Iran and claims they fuelled sectarian violence.
In the western Anbar province, Sunni tribesmen also are hoping to ride public support for their role in fighting insurgents.
The so-called Awakening Councils, which rose up against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other factions in late 2006, are credited with leading a turning point of the war. The tribal leaders are now seeking to capture seats on the provincial councils, which control spending, jobs and other important regional influence.