BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's allies swept to victory over Shiite religious parties during last weekend's provincial elections in Iraq _ a rousing endorsement of his crackdown on extremists, according to official results released Thursday.
The impressive showing, which must be certified by international and Iraqi observers, places al-Maliki in a strong position before parliamentary elections late this year and could bolster U.S. confidence that it can begin withdrawing more of its 140,000 troops.
The results were a major blow to Iraq's biggest Shiite religious party _ the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council _ which trailed in every Shiite province including its base in the holy city of Najaf.
Still, the margin of victory in a number of Shiite provinces was narrow, indicating the prime minister's supporters will have to cut deals with their rivals in order to govern.
And al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law gained little traction in Sunni areas, suggesting that sectarian divisions still play a major role in Iraqi politics. Al-Maliki is himself a Shiite from a religious party but his bloc ran on a platform against sectarianism.
Some Western diplomats believe al-Maliki's biggest problem now will be fending off challenges from fellow Shiites as well as Sunnis and Kurds _ who all underestimated him two years ago but now have a strong vested interest in curbing his power.
The elections, for ruling councils in 14 of the 18 provinces, were the first nationwide balloting since December 2005 and went off peacefully. But a suicide bomber struck Thursday in an ethnically tense northern town, killing 14 people, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The election commission must apportion seats on provincial councils based on the percentages of the vote won by each party, a process that could take weeks. Council members in turn elect the provincial governors.
Al-Maliki's biggest victories came in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's second largest city, where voters rewarded him for last spring's offensive crushing Shiite militias that had ruled the streets for years.
The election commission announced that al-Maliki's coalition claimed 38 percent of the votes in Baghdad, followed by allies of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni party with 9 percent each.
In Basra, al-Maliki's followers won 37 percent to 11.6 percent for the Supreme Council, which maintains ties to both Iran and the United States. Parties linked to the Basra militias garnered less than 5 percent.
The vote in Baghdad and Basra was also seen as a repudiation of religious parties widely blamed for fueling sectarian tension that plunged the country to the brink of all-out civil war three years ago.
However, in many southern provinces the margins among the top finishers were much closer. In Najaf, al-Maliki's coalition won 16.2 percent compared with 14.8 for the Supreme Council and 12.2 percent for al-Sadr's followers.
Al-Maliki's bloc finished third in Karbala, the prime minister's home province. The top finisher was a local group headed by a former senior provincial official in Saddam Hussein's regime.
Al-Sadr, whose fortunes waned after the defeat of his Mahdi Army militia last spring, won enough votes in Baghdad and the south to remain a player in Shiite politics.
In Sunni areas, the picture was also mixed.
A Sunni bloc linked to the al-Maliki's government finished ahead in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces but trailed a close third in Anbar, behind a party led by government critic Saleh al-Mutlaq and an alliance of tribal sheiks who rose up against al-Qaida two years ago.
A leader of the Anbar sheiks, Ahmed Abu Risha, had accused his rivals of rigging the election but said Thursday he would wait for the election commission to investigate the fraud allegations.
In Nineveh province, still a major battlefield in the war against Sunni insurgents, a local Sunni Arab party won 48.4 percent of the vote on a campaign to end Kurdish political domination.
Kurds won a disproportionate share of power in Nineveh, which includes Iraq's third largest city of Mosul, because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last provincial election in January 2005. A Kurdish ticket finished second Thursday with 25.5 percent. The election was aimed at redistributing political power at the local level and encouraging disaffected Sunnis and Shiites to settle their differences politically instead of on the battlefield.
"Iraq is a developing democracy. It's going to have to ups and downs. But I think the fact that you had Iraqis going to the polls, very little violence that took place around the election time, it's just great for the Iraqi people," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington.
"This is what so many have died for, so many have wanted. It's a very good thing."
U.S. officials were watching the outcome to determine if Iraq was stable enough for significant reductions in the U.S. military force. President Barack Obama has asked the Pentagon to draw up options, including accelerating the pace of the withdrawal.
U.S. commanders here have warned against a hasty withdrawal, fearing that the security gains of the past two years are not irreversible.
Although violence is down significantly in Baghdad and most of the country, many areas remain unstable, especially those in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are competing for power.
Elections could not be held in the ethnically mixed province around Kirkuk because Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen could not agree on a power-sharing formula. The three provinces of the Kurdish self-ruled region will choose councils later this year.
Thursday's suicide attack happened at a restaurant in Khanaqin, a largely Kurdish town in mostly Arab Diyala province 90 miles north of Baghdad near the Iranian border. The town has been a source of friction between Kurds and the Arab-run central government.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Hadeel al-Shalchi in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.