Initial results from Saturday’s landmark voting are not expected for days. But reports by Iraqi media suggested candidates backing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had strong showings in the crucial Shi’ite 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%, said Faraj al-Haidari, chairman of the election commission. It ranged from 40% in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq to 65% in the Salahuddin province, which includes the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
Figures were not yet ready for the Baghdad area, but al-Haidari said initial reports placed it at about 40%.
Al-Maliki’s supporters appeared to hold the lead in many areas of the south, including the key city of Basra and the Shi’ite spiritual center of Najaf, according to Iraq’s private Al-Sharqiya television. The trend was supported by voter comments in Basra.
Many voters praised last year’s government-backed crackdown that broke the Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite 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.
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-Qaida in Iraq and other factions in late 2006, are credited with leading a turning point of the war. Tribal leaders are now seeking to capture seats on provincial councils.
The elections took place without serious violence and were hailed as a major achievement by Iraqi officials seeking a return to stability nearly six years after the US-led invasion.