Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's allies look set for sweeping victories in provincial polls, a result that could overturn the post-Saddam political order and strengthen the hand of a leader once seen as weak.
Although official preliminary results will not be published for days, leaders of rival Shi'ite parties acknowledged that Maliki's State of Law coalition appeared to be headed for a substantial win and perhaps a landslide in Shi'ite areas.
"The results of the bloc of the prime minister: it was a surprise for many people. And I think ... it means a new power has emerged," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh referring to initial reports of success in provinces across the south.
"Nobody has expected that they (would) achieve this in Basra, in Nassiriya, in Samawa, in Kut. In this government, nobody had expected they could achieve such a result."
A government official close to the prime minister said State of Law appeared to have won in all nine southern Shi'ite provinces, as well as Shi'ite East Baghdad.
"The others are competing for second or third," he said.
If confirmed, the results would amount to a crushing defeat for religious parties that have run Shi'ite provinces with little heed to Baghdad since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
The prime minister, who campaigned hard with a nationalist law-and-order message in the weeks before Saturday's vote, would have strong momentum in his bid to hold on to power in national elections later this year in the majority Shi'ite country.
A source at the electoral commission in Basra said that the State of Law slate was far ahead in early counting with 50 percent of the vote there, a dramatic lead in Iraq's second largest city and source of nearly 80 percent of its oil exports.
Furat al-Sheraa, the head in Basra of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), the party that has controlled most southern provinces since the US-led invasion, confirmed that figure and said his own party had won only about 20 percent.
A senior figure in the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also acknowledged the apparent victory for Maliki's allies, both in the south and in Sadr City, Baghdad's giant Shi'ite slum and Sadr's main power base in the capital.
He said voters had backed the prime minister in response to better security and out of unhappiness with local incumbents.
Official results may not be definitive for up to a month, and some politicians cautioned against reading too much from early tallies. But anecdotal evidence also points to success for Maliki, who was installed by larger Shi'ite religious parties in 2006 and in the past had little clout in the provinces.
Of dozens of voters throughout Sadr City interviewed by Reuters, nearly all said they picked the prime minister's slate.
At Sadr City's al-Chowadar coffee shop, a straw poll was unanimous: everyone said they voted for "Abu Asraa", referring to Maliki by his daughter's name, a sign of affection.
"He succeeded in changing our bad situation for the better," said Haj Nassir al-Lami, an elderly man puffing on a water pipe.
Notably in a country emerging from sectarian violence, Maliki achieved success among Shi'ites with a campaign that rigorously avoided religious themes. ISCI, by contrast, made wide use of Shi'ite symbols and slogans.
"New political forces have emerged in this election on the Shi'ite side and on the Sunni side," said government spokesman Dabbagh. "They talked to the people on national issues, not on a sectarian basis and this is the result they achieved."
Victory in Basra and Sadr City would mark an extraordinary turnaround. Less than a year ago, both areas were controlled by Sadr's black-masked Mehdi Army fighters, driven out only after Maliki launched military crackdowns in which hundreds died.
Maliki favours a strong central state, while ISCI and some other Shi'ite groups have sought greater autonomy for the south. The prime minister's success would undermine their autonomy bid.
"If Maliki does well, then it means he has a clear popular mandate to move in the direction of a strong centralised state," said Reidar Visser, a Norwegian expert who studies Iraq's south.