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Iraqi prime minister is big winner in vote

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 BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi voters gave the prime minister a resounding endorsement in provincial elections, choosing security over long-dominant religious parties in much of the country, according to results released Thursday.

The election commission announced that the coalition loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finished first in races for ruling councils in Baghdad and eight other provinces during last weekend's vote.

The clearest victory was in Baghdad, where al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law received 38 percent of the vote, followed by allies of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni party with 9 percent each.

In Basra, the country's second biggest city, the prime minister's followers won 37 percent to 11.6 percent for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shiite party.

Both cities witnessed Shiite militia violence for years until al-Maliki ordered a crackdown last spring, ending the rule of gunmen.

All told, voters chose ruling councils in 14 of the 18 provinces in the first Iraqi election since December 2005. Elections will be held later in four northern provinces, three of them in the Kurdish self-governing region.

The vote was aimed at redistributing political power at the local level and was widely seen as a dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections at the end of the year. U.S. officials were watching the outcome for signs of whether Iraq was stable enough for significant troop withdrawals this year.

But in a sign of continued instability, a suicide bomber blew himself up Thursday inside a crowded restaurant in a Khanaqin near the Iranian border, killing at least 14 people and wounding 12, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi officials.

Men carried out bloodied bodies on stretchers or with their bare hands, stepping over piles of rubble from the devastated facade of the popular kebab restaurant, according to AP Television News footage. Stunned victims pressed bandages to their foreheads as they waited to be treated in the packed emergency room.

Kurdish and police officials said most of the victims were Kurds lunching at the popular Abu Dalshad restaurant.

Khanaqin, 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, has been a source of friction between Kurds and the Arab-run central government. Hundreds of Kurds complained on election day that they couldn't find their names on voter registration lists.

Salahuddin Kokha, an official with the local chapter of a Kurdish political party, said the attack was meant to upset Kurdish claims of a strong showing in elections in mainly Sunni Diyala province.

"Terrorists want to destroy the happiness of the Kurds over their election victory in Khanaqin," Kokha said. "All of those killed were civilians."

The official election results later showed that the main Sunni bloc's list won the vote in Diyala with 21.1 percent, while the Kurds came in second with 17.2 percent.

In the days before the official election results were announced, early returns leaked by political parties led to allegations of irregularities in several provinces — particularly Anbar, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital.

A leader of the Awakening Councils — Sunni tribesmen who turned against al-Qaida in the area — had complained that rival Sunnis stole the election, a charge they denied.

The concerns sparked fear of new violence after tribal leaders sent gunmen into the streets, and Iraqi authorities to ask U.S. troops to stand by in case of trouble following Thursday's elections announcement.

But the Awakening Council leader, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, indicated his group would accept the results after coming in a close second, with 17.1 percent compared with 17.6 percent for an allied Sunni group led by Saleh al-Mutlaq.

"There wasn't a large gap between al-Mutlaq's results and ours. Moreover he is our ally," Abu Risha told The Associated Press. "But our win won't halt us from asking for investigating the fraud committed by the Islamic Party."

In another closely watched vote, a Sunni Arab nationalist group known as the National Hadba Gathering won 48.4 percent in the northern Ninevah province, which includes the violent city of Mosul.

The gains were short of a majority that would allow the party to govern without a coalition but double the 25.5 percent won by the rival Kurdish list.

The party was formed in 2006 with the avowed goal of ending the rule of Kurdish parties, which won control because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last regional balloting in January 2005.

Sunnis saw the election as an informal referendum on Kurdish ambitions to incorporate several disputed districts into their nearby semiautonomous region. Kurds claim the National Hadba Gathering includes former Saddam Hussein loyalists with links to insurgents.

___

Associated Press Writers Saad Abdul-Kadir and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

 Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

 
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