BAGHDAD Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rode a nationalist, law-and-order message to a decisive victory over the Shi'ite religious parties who previously dominated Iraq, preliminary election results showed on Thursday.
The success of Maliki's State of Law coalition in provincial polls in Baghdad and the Shi'ite south gives a leader once derided as weak a mandate for a strong central state, and crucial momentum before national elections later this year.
It also marks a shift away from the overtly sectarian politics that gripped Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"This shows that the Iraqi voter wants to hear nationalist speeches as well as religious speeches," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters by telephone from Kuwait.
"The first priority for Iraqis is security. The prime minister achieved good security for Iraq. The Iraqi voter preferred to give his vote to the one who brought security."
Maliki, himself a Shi'ite with deep Islamist roots, campaigned on a non-sectarian law-and-order platform, even as his opponents adopted overtly religious slogans and images.
Saturday's provincial election was the most peaceful in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, hailed as a sign of progress by Washington as its 140,000 troops prepare to leave.
Maliki's State of Law won by huge margins in the capital and Iraq's second largest city Basra, and scored smaller but substantial victories in seven of eight other Shi'ite provinces in the south.
Secularist and independent parties also fared well across Iraq, the results showed, after being largely swamped by religious parties in the last election in 2005.
By contrast, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) -- until now the dominant party among Iraq's Shi'ite majority -- relied on relentless Shi'ite religious images and slogans but failed to win a single province.
Although Iraq is now largely quieter than at any time since the invasion, a suicide bomber in the north killed 15 people hours before poll results were unveiled, the bloodiest strike in weeks and a reminder that peace remains fragile.
"It does make it clear that there obviously are still elements here -- al Qaeda, other terrorists -- that are trying to disrupt progress throughout Iraq because they see progress as the greatest threat," U.S. military spokesman Major-General David Perkins said.
Results released by the independent election commission showed Maliki's State of Law bloc winning 38 percent of votes in Baghdad and 37 percent in Basra, the province that includes the second largest city and accounts for most of Iraq's oil exports.
A group backed by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr placed second in Baghdad with just 9 percent of the vote. In Basra, ISCI placed second with 11.6 percent.
Results were closer in other Shi'ite provinces and the next weeks will see parties scrambling to form coalitions in the regional councils which elect powerful governors.
Jalal al-Din Saghir, a senior ISCI lawmaker, sought to put a bright face on his party's poor showing.
"Time will show that we had the best campaign platform and the best plans to solve provinces' problems. What happened will not affect us."
Sunni Arab parties won in Iraq's most violent province, Nineveh in the north. The Sunnis make up the majority there, but Kurds had controlled the provincial government because many Arabs boycotted the vote in 2005. U.S. and Iraqi commanders hope the Sunni return to provincial power will ease violence.
In Anbar, once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency, a secular party and tribal sheikhs edged out the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), which had run the province since 2005.
The sheikhs, who run U.S.-backed guard units known as "Awakening Councils" that helped drive out militants, had accused the IIP of fraud and vowed to take up arms if it won.
"We are satisfied with the results of the election," Awakening leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters by telephone over the sound of jubilant cheering at his home.
Maliki was long seen as a weak leader with little clout in the regional governments that run Iraq's towns and villages. He relied on support from ISCI and Sadr to take power in 2006.
But he won popular support last year on the strength of the improvements in security, especially in Basra and Shi'ite parts of Baghdad where he drove out Sadr's militia.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, and Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Michael Christie)