BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim voters chose nationalism and security over religion in local polls, backing allies of the prime minister in a vote that could give them the upper hand in parliamentary elections later this year.
Results from Saturday's election showed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's allies trounced the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), which had dominated the Shi'ite south, by coming first in eight of the nine southern provinces.
Maliki heads the Dawa Party, an Islamist group, but the coalition it led in the polls made little mention of religion.
Instead it sought to seek credit for growing security and promoted a message of national unity to voters tired of years of sectarian bloodshed and a failure to deliver services under the largely religious leaders in charge since 2005.
"It's not a backlash against religion, it's a backlash against promises made in terms of sectarian identity," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.
ISCI, which has ties to a powerful militia formed in Iran, had said it expected to do well in the vote. Instead, Maliki's coalition routed it from its stronghold in the southern province of Najaf, and won a landslide in the oil-producing southern province of Basra as well as the capital Baghdad.
Last month's provincial election was Iraq's most peaceful vote since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Big wins for Maliki's followers mark a major shift in Iraqi politics away from religious identity, pulling the rug out from under ISCI, once Iraq's most powerful group among the Shi'ite majority but which failed to come first in a single province.
ISCI ran an overtly religious campaign, invoking Shi'ite ritual and its perceived closeness to Iraq's top Shi'ite clergy, or Marjaiya, headed by revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, despite his wish to remain above the political fray.
ISCI's losses bode ill for it ahead of parliamentary polls due later this year, raising fears over its next move.
"Will ISCI accept this, or will they resort to sabotage, to armed conflict, or other things?" Ghassan al-Atiyyah of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development said.
Formed in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's reign, ISCI is well funded, and many resent its perceived foreign backing. Many voters say they have not seen much improvement in the southern provinces ISCI has controlled since 2005.
"It's the poor governance of the past four years, and its baggage. People have never learned to trust ISCI. They still think of it as an Iranian proxy," Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank said.
ISCI had also pushed for an independent Shi'ite region in Iraq's south, though little was made of this in their campaign. Maliki, in contrast, called for national unity and a strong central government, and touted the sharp fall in violence in Iraq over the past 18 months.
"Maliki changed his clothes he didn't mention Islam in his speeches, he didn't speak as the Dawa Party, but as a secularist would speak, about civil society," Atiyyah said.
Another key player in the Shi'ite south, followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, also eschewed religious campaigning. Confirming the shift away from religion, secularists did well in the vote compared to polls in 2005, when they were sidelined.
Religion loomed over Iraqi politics amid the Sunni-Shi'ite bloodbath that followed the invasion, and a broad Shi'ite coalition corralled the Shi'ite vote four years ago.
"The (coalition) failed in government, and so the Shi'ite vote is not on the basis of sectarian identity but bread and butter issues, like security and service delivery," Dodge said.
"That leaves ISCI very vulnerable and exposed," he added.
ISCI came third and second place in many provinces, and so could still neuter some of Dawa's influence. It has a lot of money and patronage to dispense when it starts negotiating alliances, analysts say.
However, the party could also implode.
ISCI's leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has cancer, and his son Ammar al-Hakim seems certain to replace him, a hereditary succession that may not please all ISCI members.
Also, a lot of ISCI's power has derived from its close alliance with the Badr Organisation, which has seats in parliament as well as a powerful armed wing.
"The Badr Organisation will now feel more encouraged to act separately, more independently," Attiya said.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul