BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has won a resounding victory in provincial elections across Iraq, cashing in on his strongman image while dealing a sharp defeat to outright religious parties, according to preliminary results released Thursday.
Candidates running under Maliki's Enforcement of Law slate won the most seats in nine of 14 contested provinces, including the Shiite Muslim power bases of Baghdad and Basra.
In both provinces, the prime minister's bloc trounced its longtime rival for Shiite dominance, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, by margins of more than 3 to 1 in Saturday's voting.
The victory was a remarkable turnabout for Maliki, who in the last year has repackaged himself as a secular-leaning leader willing to crack down on fellow Shiites as well as Sunni Arab insurgents, and able to stand up to the Bush administration in negotiations over the future of American forces in Iraq.
For Washington, the results represented a positive outcome that could undergird the Obama administration's case for faster troop withdrawals.
Like the tortoise who had been dismissed as plodding and weak only to cross the finish line first, Maliki, once seen as ineffectual, convinced millions of Iraqis that he alone could restore security and sovereignty to the country.
The question now is whether Maliki, who critics say is sectarian at heart and who needed U.S. firepower to win battles against Shiite militiamen in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City last spring, can sustain his burnished image and persuade his defeated rivals to refrain from violence even as his American protectors withdraw.
The same strongman image that endeared him to Iraqis might be his worst enemy as parties jockey for position ahead of national elections expected in December, said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"He's got the next 12 months in which everyone will be fighting to take away that power, so Maliki will have to redouble his efforts" to hold on to his advantage, Dodge said.
With President Obama eager to quickly pull American troops from Iraq and eyeing the peaceful election as a sign that withdrawal could be accelerated, Maliki will find himself in an especially vulnerable spot in the months ahead if losing parties decide to push back against his increased power, analysts say.
"If you've got American peacekeepers around, the risk of election failure is not as grave," said Stephen Biddle, a military analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Washington, administration officials pointedly avoided commenting on the election results and on how the outcome might affect U.S. troop plans, which several officials noted remained under review.
However, the relatively peaceful election and the clear preference among voters for secular leadership suggest that democracy is taking hold "from the ground up, rather than top down," said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Still, the official said that before proceeding with troop reductions, the administration will have to consider the general security situation in Iraq, the strength of the country's military and police forces and the potential threat from neighboring states.
Obama campaigned on a promise to bring the roughly 145,000 U.S. troops home from Iraq within 16 months but has suggested many could be withdrawn this year.
Although U.S. military officials are urging a slow drawdown, Maliki's demands for a deadline for American withdrawal during talks on the Status of Forces Agreement last year were seen as one of the things that bolstered his image in voters' minds. During months of talks, Maliki won a U.S. pledge to pull combat troops from Iraqi cities by June, and to withdraw all American forces from the country by Dec. 31, 2011. If Obama's timetable works, they would be gone by the spring of 2010.
It was Maliki's military offensives in March and April against Shiite militias in Basra and later in Sadr City that won over voters and convinced many Sunnis that he was not dangerously sectarian.
"Despite the fact that his party is Islamic and not secular, I consider it a patriotic one," said Mansoor Abu Mustafa, a merchant in Basra, where the provincial council had been dominated by the more religious SIIC and the Al Fadila al Islamiya party. Maliki's slate there won 37% of the seats Saturday, while SIIC took 11.6%.
In Baghdad, where Maliki's slate won 38% of seats to SIIC's 5.4%, Sunni voter Wissam Hussam agreed.
"In the beginning we thought that because he's Shiite he'd be more on the Shiites' side, but slowly we realized that wasn't the case," Hussam said.
In addition to Baghdad and Basra, Maliki's bloc won the highest percentage of votes in seven other provinces, though by smaller margins. That will force him to build coalitions with other parties, including SIIC and politicians backed by anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Sadr did not run his own candidates but endorsed those of the Liberal Independent slate, who came in second in three provinces, including Baghdad. That guarantees that Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was quashed by Maliki's offensives, will remain a player on Iraq's volatile political stage.
"We wanted to send a message to other political parties that we still play an essential part in the basic political structure of Iraq," said Salah Obeidi, a spokesman for the Sadr movement. "Some entities said the Sadr movement had come to an end. They were 100% wrong, and this was proved by the election results."
Maliki, whose Islamic Dawa Party, like SIIC, is Islamist and has strong ties to Iran, dubbed his slate Enforcement of Law for the purpose of this election. During the campaign, he preached against sectarianism. In his Western suit and tie, he was a sharp contrast to SIIC's leader, the turbaned theologian Abdelaziz Hakim, who invoked the name of Shiite martyr Imam Hussein in campaign speeches and said it was Iraqis' religious duty to vote.
"We are an Islamic political entity, and the Iraqi people voted for us knowing this fact very well, but we demonstrate our full respect to the secular entities who are present in the political arena," said Ali Allaq, a Dawa lawmaker, in explaining Maliki's win. "We believe in partnership and respect all . . . whether they are secular or not."
The relatively strong showing of secular slates showed voters' apparent disillusionment with religious parties across the country. In the western province of Anbar, the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party lost ground to a slate of secular candidates and tribal leaders credited with helping turn the tide against the Sunni Arab insurgents who once controlled the province.
Secular and nationalist interests were also apparent in the outcomes in Iraq's volatile north, where Sunni Arabs have been vying for dominance with Kurds. In Nineveh, whose capital, Mosul, has become Iraq's most violent city because of attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents, the Sunni nationalist Hadba slate won 48.4% of the vote.
Sunnis also won in Diyala province, an ethnically mixed region plagued by Sunni-Kurdish tensions.
A bomb blast in Diyala's Kurdish city of Khanaqin hours before election results were announced killed 16 people, Iraqi officials said.
The Sunni victories had been expected, because Sunni Arabs who had boycotted the 2005 election came to the polls this time.
The Shiite and Kurdish dominance that resulted from the 2005 boycott, even in mainly Sunni areas, had been blamed for fueling sectarian and ethnic unrest.
Saturday's vote was aimed at revamping provincial power structures and quelling such tensions.
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Raheem Salman, Ned Parker, Saif Hameed, Monte Morin and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.