According to preliminary official results in Iraq's provincial elections, the State of Law alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is the big winner, with gains particularly in Baghdad and the Shi'ite heartland of southern Iraq.
The Independent Election Commission has announced that the State of Law bloc won 38 percent of the vote in the capital and 37 percent in the southern, oil-rich province of Al-Basrah.
In Al-Basrah the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) received the second-most votes, 11.6 percent, while candidates backed by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were second in Baghdad with just 9 percent of the vote.
State of Law also won in another ISCI stronghold, the southern Shi'ite province of Al-Najaf, Reuters reported.
The swing to al-Maliki is seen as a consequence of his successful drive to restore order and security for ordinary Iraqis.
The multiethnic grouping he leads is also secular and national in outlook, indicating voter support for these policies over the religious and regionally oriented Islamic parties. This despite the history of al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party as an Islamist Shi'ite party.
The big loser in the elections is thought to be the ISCI, which controlled most of southern Iraq. The ISCI is still part of the Shi'ite-led national government with Al-Da'wah.
The ISCI's loss is also a blow to it's closest ally, Iran.
Shi'ite Iran is widely seen as exercising influence on Iraq through ISCI and other Shi'ite parties, and AP says the voting pattern may reflect a desire on the part of Iraqis not to allow Iran to gain too much power over Iraqi affairs.
Senior ISCI official Ammar al-Hakim says, however, that State of Law does not have a majority in most of the provinces, and will have to rely on building coalitions if it wants to rule.
In the troubled northern province of Nineveh, the Sunni Al-Hadba bloc won the vote, well ahead of a Kurdish party. Kurds held control of the outgoing Nineveh council, despite being a minority in the province, because the Sunnis boycotted the last such elections in 2005. Nineveh remains the most violent province in Iraq, with Al-Qaeda fighters still present.
As preliminary results were announced, tensions were high in the western Al-Anbar province, where Sunni sheikhs of the Awakening movement have said they were not prepared to accept defeat in the elections.
The most prominent of the sheikhs, Ahmad Abu Rishah, told "The Washington Post" that "disaster" would follow if the rival Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni religious group, retained control in the 29-seat provincial council.
Rishah claimed there was widespread voter fraud in the elections.
According to the preliminary results, the sheikhs won about the same number of votes as the Islamic Party. So far, there's no reaction from Rishah or other tribal leaders on how they view this.
The Sunni sheikhs boycotted the last such elections in 2005, allowing the Islamic Party to take control of the provincial council.
But since that last vote, the sheikhs have joined U.S.-supported Awakening Councils, and made a successful effort to drive Al-Qaeda forces out of Al-Anbar. As a result, they now feel they have a right to run the political affairs of the province.
with agency reports