Iraq’s PM appears to poll strongly in Shi’ite south

By Mohammed Abbas and Muhanad Mohammed

NAJAF/BASRA (BestGrowthStock) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s list appeared to have polled well in Iraq’s Shi’ite south in a parliamentary election on Sunday, despite a stiff challenge by political rivals, according to informal tallies.

Early official results from Sunday’s milestone election were not expected for a day or more. Maliki would need more than a strong performance in the nine southern provinces of Iraq’s Shi’ite heartland to secure a second term as premier.

Another term for Maliki would likely reassure investors looking for continuity, especially global oil firms that have signed multi-billion dollar contracts with his government to tap Iraq’s vast oil reserves, the world’s third largest.

Initial, unofficial vote counts in the holy city of Najaf, where powerful clerics hold sway over majority Shi’ite Muslims, in the oil hub of Basra and in Kerbala showed Maliki’s State of Law coalition did well against its main Shi’ite rival, the Iraqi National Alliance, and a secular, Shi’ite-Sunni bloc, Iraqiya.

Reuters reporters saw no more than a fraction of the votes counted and could not confirm any election trends.

“It looks from the initial results that Maliki has come first in Najaf,” said an independent election observer who declined to be named. The observer was in contact with others at voting centers across the province.

In Basra, soon to be the center of an unprecedented oilfield development boom as Iraq seeks to claw its way into the top ranks of oil producers, initial vote counts shown to journalists by election officials also showed State of Law performing well.

The vote is Iraq’s second full national election since U.S. troops invaded in 2003, and is seen as crucial to cementing fragile democracy and bringing all the country’s feuding factions into the political process.

Maliki, then a relatively obscure politician, was picked as a compromise candidate for prime minister in 2006. He has since emerged as an assertive leader.

U.S. officials hoping to halt combat operations in August and withdraw all troops by end-2011, say they can work with Maliki. Many U.S. officials were once critical of him but say they have become converts impressed by his political skills as he consolidated his position in the past two years.

VIOLENCE DOWN, SERVICES MATTER

Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply under his watch, but bombings and shootings are still common. At least 38 people were killed in a slew of mortar, rocket and bomb attacks in and around Baghdad on Sunday as the country voted.

The Shi’ite south has been relatively calm, and the blasts had little effect on voters there.

Basic services such as electricity and water supply, which remain abysmal, and corruption, top the public’s concerns.

Early vote counts shown to journalists in the southern province of Kerbala, another major Shi’ite religious center, also showed that State of Law had done well.

In Basra, a bellwether province that was overrun by gangs and militias until Maliki ordered a crackdown in 2008, many voters said they viewed Maliki as an effective leader.

“Maliki deserves my vote because he got rid of the militias in Basra, which killed and terrorized the people,” said Khalas Nasser, a laborer.

Some voters said Maliki was the best option.

“I’m voting for State of Law because it’s better the devil you know,” said Najaf voter Abbas Khalid.

The Iraqi National Alliance, led by the powerful Shi’ite party the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, was State of Law’s biggest rival in the south according to the early indications.

Iraqiya, headed by former premier Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, appeared to be the next strongest.

Electoral authorities in Baghdad urged political parties to wait for the formal results before declaring victory.

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Iraq’s PM appears to poll strongly in Shi’ite south