Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's allies swept to victory over Shiite religious parties during last weekend's provincial elections in Iraq, according to official results released Thursday. The impressive showing, which must be certified by international and Iraqi observers, places al-Maliki in a strong position before parliamentary elections later this year.
The results were a major blow to Iraq's biggest Shiite religious party - the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council - which trailed in every Shiite province including its base in the holy city of Najaf. According to the AP, al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law gained little traction in Sunni areas.
The elections, for ruling councils in 14 of the 18 provinces, were the first nationwide balloting since December 2005 and held peacefully.
Al-Maliki's biggest wins came in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's second largest city. The election commission announced that al-Maliki's coalition claimed 38 percent of the votes in Baghdad, followed by allies of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni party with 9 percent each.
In Basra, al-Maliki's followers won 37 percent to 11.6 percent for the Supreme Council. Parties linked to the Basra militias garnered less than 5 percent.
In many southern provinces the margins among the top finishers were much closer. In Najaf, al-Maliki's coalition won 16.2 percent compared with 14.8 for the Supreme Council and 12.2 percent for al-Sadr's followers. Al-Maliki's bloc finished third in Karbala, the prime minister's home province. The top finisher was a local group led by a former senior provincial official in Saddam Hussein's regime.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber struck Thursday in an ethnically tense northern town, killing 14 people, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The suicide attack happened at a restaurant in Khanaqin, a largely Kurdish town in Diyala province 90 miles north of Baghdad near the Iranian border.