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Iraq PM's group wins largest bloc in several areas

Saturday - 5/4/2013, 8:08pm  ET

Sarbast Mustafa, left, chairman of the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq, and his colleagues, Katee al-Zobaie, center, Kolshan Kamal, right, attend a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 4, 2013. Iraqi electoral officials say a coalition led by Iraq's prime minister has won the largest single bloc of seats in seven of 12 provinces participating in local elections, and tied in eighth, although it failed to achieve a majority in any of the districts. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban)

ADAM SCHRECK
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A coalition led by Iraq's prime minister has won the largest single bloc of seats in seven of 12 provinces participating in local elections, and tied in an eighth, although it failed to achieve a majority in any of the districts, electoral officials announced Saturday.

Last month's vote was for seats on local-level governorate councils and has no direct effect on the country's national posts. But the results do offer an important glimpse into levels of support for the country's political blocs heading into next year's parliamentary elections.

The results released Saturday by members of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission at a Baghdad hotel showed little change to preliminary results released last week.

Thousands of candidates from 50 electoral blocs vied for 378 seats on the provincial councils. Election officials reported that 51 percent of the 13.8 million eligible voters cast ballots -- the same turnout as during the last provincial elections in 2009.

Crucially, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition was the top vote-getter in Baghdad and in the southern oil hub of Basra.

In Baghdad, al-Maliki's coalition took 20 out of the 58 seats. The second-place vote-getter, at least on paper, was Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's bloc, which claimed seven seats.

Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's main al-Ahrar bloc won five seats in Baghdad, but his followers also ran under other smaller voting lists that picked up seats. Together, the Sadrists claimed 11 seats in Baghdad, according to Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani.

Al-Maliki's State of Law also won the most seats of any bloc in Babil, Diwaniyah, Dhi Qar, Karbala and Muthanna provinces.

In Wasit province, southeast of Baghdad, State of Law and Shiite rival the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council each took seven seats.

Al-Sadr's bloc took the most seats in the southern Shiite province of Maysan, the only area where it currently holds the governorship.

Baghdad-based political analyst Hadi Jalo said State of Law's first-place showing in Baghdad and the Shiite dominated south was not surprising. But he said a drop in support for the bloc in some areas could signal challenges for it ahead.

"Al-Maliki's people could not achieve a comfortable majority, and this is an indication that they will face more difficulties in winning a third term in the upcoming general elections next year," he said. That will force him to rely more on more religious Shiite parties as well as the Kurds to keep his post, Jalo predicted.

A provincial-level coalition gained the most seats in the Shiite province of Najaf. Local coalitions also took the largest chunk of seats in the largely Sunni province of Salahuddin and the mixed province of Diyala.

The secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc headed by Shiite politician Ayad Allawi had a disappointing showing, picking up no more than three seats in any of the provinces.

Iraqiya had proved to be a formidable challenger to al-Maliki in the 2010 parliamentary elections, picking up two more seats than the premier's bloc in an inconclusive election that ultimately left al-Maliki in power after months of political wrangling.

But it has grown fragmented since then, with key figures such as al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq -- who previously banded with Iraqiya -- fielding their own slates of candidates.

The relatively strong showing by al-Nujaifi over more moderate figures among Sunnis suggests a hardening of sectarian lines and a rejection of politicians willing to reach out to Shiites, Jalo said.

"The Sunnis in Iraq have chosen hard-liners because they think that the country is heading toward Shiite-Sunni conflict and they want strong leaders to face al-Maliki," he said.

The April 20 election was Iraq's first since the U.S. military withdrawal in late 2011. There was relatively little violence during the voting itself, though delayed elections in two provinces wracked by anti-government protests and complaints about missing names on voter rolls overshadowed the process.

An unusually bloody wave of violence that erupted just days after the election roiled the country as votes were being tallied.

The bloodshed began with a crackdown by security forces on a protest camp in the north of the country that government investigators said left more than 40 people dead. A spate of follow-up attacks and battles between gunmen and security forces has killed well over 200 more. That is raising fears the country could be heading for a new wave of sectarian fighting like that which nearly pushed it to the brink of civil war starting in the middle of the last decade.

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