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UN Chief Visits Iraq To Mark Landmark Elections

While rejecting religious parties,Iraqis continued to vote mostly along communal lines.
(RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has paid a visit to Iraq following the country's most peaceful elections since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Ban's visit to Baghdad is the latest sign of international endorsement for Iraq's provincial polls.

"I am here to convey best wishes from the United Nations for all the successful achievements which you made during this last election," Ban said at a joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad.

"My sincere congratulations and 'mabruk' [congratulations] to all the Iraqi people and government."

His visit comes less than a week after the January 31 poll saw some 51 percent of the country's voters go to the voting booths in 14 provinces to elect their provincial governments.

Iraq's Independent Election Commission says that about 90 percent of the votes have now been counted.

The results have yet to be certified by Iraqi and international observers and are likely to be challenged in some contests. But there is wide agreement that the voting was free and fair, as well as largely free of violence.

Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Muhammad al-Khamlishi congratulated Iraq on the election this way on February 5, saying that a league delegation found "that the election process was marked by good organization inside and outside the centers and it was completed in a transparent and fair manner."

Victory For Secular Nationalists

The election results constitute an in-depth poll of public opinion in Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated south and Sunni-dominated center.

Four of Iraq's 18 provinces did not take part. Those include the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the ethnically divided province of Kirkuk, where the vote was postponed for fear of violence.

The biggest winner in the polls is the alliance of politicians linked to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Calling for strong centralized government, the alliance, the State of Law, made particularly strong showings in Iraq's two biggest urban areas.

It took 38 percent of the vote in the capital and 37 percent of the vote in province of Iraq's second city, Al-Basrah.

But the landslide showings are still not enough for the coalition to rule alone.

In Baghdad, the State of Law bloc will have to share power with politicians endorsed by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and with a Sunni party, both of which polled 9 percent of the vote.

And in Al-Basrah, al-Maliki's allies will have to share power with the previously dominant Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which opposes strong centralized rule from Baghdad and wants to see the oil-rich Shi'ite south become semi-autonomous along the Kurdish model.

Still, the influence of the ISCI is significantly weakened. All told, the State of Law alliance won majorities in eight of the nine southern provinces, while the ISCI won none.

The election results from the south show that Shi'ite voters not only favor strong central rule but also a more secular emphasis in politics, even as they reelected religious parties.

The State of Law bloc won support by downplaying the religious identity of its main party, al-Maliki's own Islamist Al-Da'wah, to stress the technocratic and nationalist credentials of its candidates.

By contrast, the ISCI ran on religious slogans and its perceived closeness to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, despite the revered cleric's own refusal to endorse any parties.

Voting Along Ethnic Lines

But if the elections showed a general fatigue with overtly religious politics and new support for a strong central government, the polls also showed Shi'a and Sunnis voting along communal lines.

Al-Maliki's appeals to Sunni voters to also back his alliance on nationalist lines appears to have had virtually no success outside of Baghdad itself.

Across the Sunni-dominated center, voters turned out in record numbers after largely boycotting the last provincial polls four years ago.

In Salah Al-Din province, previously a hotbed of the anti-U.S. Sunni insurgency, about 65 percent of the registered voters participated, far more than the national average of 51 percent.

The Sunni voters split their ballots between Sunni religious and secular parties and tribal leaders. Which will be dominant has yet to be determined as, in some provinces, the voting results are being hotly contested.

In Al-Anbar, tribal leaders have accused the incumbent Iraqi Islamist Party, which has previously cooperated in the Shi'ite-dominated national government, of voting fraud.

A major challenge for al-Maliki now will be how to respond to a new wave of Sunni politicians entering the political arena for the first time. Their popular mandate provides him with a fresh opportunity to bridge Iraq's sectarian divides, but also is a measure of how far the country's communities remain from full reconciliation.

The elections confirmed, too, that the hottest spots for the coming months may be in areas with mixed Arab and Kurdish populations.

In Nineveh province, a new Arab nationalist party, Al-Hadba, took more than 48 percent of the vote, reversing the Kurdish minority's previous hold on power. But there are high tensions over the Kurds' desire to bring their areas into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, raising questions about whether they will relinquish their control of the provincial council.

Nationwide, more than 14,000 candidates from 400 political parties and lists took part in the elections. The country's next key point will be national parliamentary elections in December.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report