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Iraq posts electoral progress Stable elections, secular victories hold hope for American withdrawal

Nouri al-Maliki, the national leader who did not have a shoe thrown at him at a recent Baghdad press conference, has emerged as the big winner in the recent Iraqi provincial elections.

That's good news for the many Iraqis who voted for Maliki's nationalist ticket. It's good news for the American military personnel, who Maliki will proceed, gently, to escort out of his country. And it's bad news for the religious factions who wanted to spin Iraq into quarrelsome fragments, one of which could easily have wound up as a de facto province of Iran.

It may be a stretch to count someone whose name wasn't on any ballot, and whose allied slates of candidates were lucky to get a third of the vote in most places, as a winner. But, as fragmented and inexperienced as Iraq's democratic process is, Maliki has won the closest thing to a mandate any politician there is likely to receive.

The optimistic spin on that news is that a clear plurality of Iraqi voters, in many regions, have chosen Maliki's brand of national leadership over rival visions of Iraq as largely independent cantons split along tribal, ethnic or religious lines.

Observers say Maliki has shaken his previous image as a rumpled technocrat who was put in power by the Americans because he was everyone's second choice. He is now seen as a strong -- but not too strong -- prime minister who honors his Islamic heritage but did not hesitate to build strong secular security services and send them against violent Islamic insurgents in Baghdad and Basra.

The prospect of law and order in Iraq following years of unrest that was accidentally loosed by the American invasion has apparently won Maliki and his coalition the support of Iraqis previously thought to be in the camps of the more religiously centered movements such as the Supreme Council of Iraq.

Maliki must know that his ability to hang on to power depends on his ability to do two things that were, until quite recently, seen to be opposing goals: Keep the peace and hasten the withdrawal of American and other foreign military forces.

He has been assisted in this quest by the coincidence of the American political calendar. Maliki's power grew on the back of the Bush-era surge, and his ability to exercise that power on his own, without American supervision, will be welcomed by the Obama-era promise to exit the country with all deliberate speed.

There are still votes to count, challenges to investigate, coalitions to build and, come the end of the year, another round of elections to run.

But, for now, the Iraqi political movement led by Prime Minister Maliki seems to be building the best road for an honorable and prudent departure of American forces from Iraq.

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