(Updates with Baghdad results)
By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will take control of the southern oil hub of Basra after winning 20 out of 36 provincial council seats in local elections last month, officials said on Thursday.
Six of the seats allocated to Maliki’s State of Law coalition were assigned to women, Usama al-Ani, deputy head of the independent electoral commission, told a news conference.
Supporters of the increasingly assertive prime minister also took the most provincial council seats in the capital Baghdad, gaining 28 out of 57 seats and boosting Maliki’s stature ahead of parliamentary elections at the end of the year.
The Jan. 31 election to pick councils governing 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces was the most peaceful vote since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, feeding hopes for an end to years of sectarian slaughter and insurgency.
Maliki emerged as a surprisingly strong winner after his allies trounced Shi’ite Muslim rivals across much of the south.
They performed particularly well in Basra, which includes Iraq’s most productive oil fields, and the capital Baghdad, both cities where Maliki used U.S.-backed Iraqi troops last year to crush militias run by rival Shi’ite factions.
Maliki campaigned for his slate of candidates by claiming credit for a sharp fall in violence over recent months. He also pushed for a strong centralised, and unified, state, while other parties campaigned using overtly religious or sectarian themes.
His success has raised concerns among minority Kurds, who enjoy autonomy in Iraq’s north, and may also rankle the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council which was previously the strongest Shi’ite political group in Iraq. It performed poorly in the vote.
TRIBAL CHIEFS ON TOP
In the western desert province of Anbar, Sunni tribal chiefs who helped U.S. forces drive out Islamist militants like al Qaeda, and who had threatened to take up arms again if they did not win political power, got the most seats.
It was a surprise after the tribal chiefs placed second in preliminary results. The tribal chiefs, with 8 out of 29 council seats, plan to form an alliance with a secular Sunni group.
In the still violent northern province of Nineveh, where al Qaeda is making a stand, a Sunni party won control of the regional council with 19 of 37 seats, usurping the position of minority Kurds who had been in charge the past few years.
Sunnis had been largely excluded from power in Nineveh after boycotting the last provincial election in 2005 and their resentment had fuelled lingering violence.
Preliminary election results had already pointed to a victory in Basra for Maliki’s coalition, giving it 37 percent of ballots cast, and in Baghdad, with 38 percent of the vote.
Electoral commission head Faraj al-Haidari told Reuters the difference between actual percentage of votes and the final distribution of seats was due to the election law invalidating all candidates who did not reach a minimum number of ballots. That law benefited big parties, he said.
In most areas, winners will have to forge alliances in order to establish the councils, which exert some control over public services and budgets and select powerful provincial governors.
U.S. officials say tensions may rise when incumbents have to hand their positions — and resources — to the winners. (Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Jon Boyle)