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The Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki was the overwhelming winner of Iraq’s provincial elections, the first official results show. But while candidates in the slate backed by Dawa garnered the most votes of any party in nine of Iraq’s provinces, the party fell short of being able to operate without coalition-building. The initial results reflect a vast majority, but not all, of the votes.

Still, the results lifted al-Maliki’s party from a minor player among Shiite parties to one that appeared on the road to being the most powerful.

The election outcome conveyed a dual message: many Iraqis want a strong central government, rather than one where regions hold more power than the center, but they do not want all the power in the hands of one party.

“We don’t seek to rule alone or marginalize anyone,” said Hassan Sinead, a member of Parliament who is in the Dawa Party and an ally of al-Maliki. “On the contrary, we are open to the other parties, whether they won or lost the election, because we don’t believe in the dictatorship of the regions or any other kind, because we are not dictators.”

Some politicians have voiced concerns in recent months that too much power was being concentrated in al-Maliki’s hands, and the election results suggested that Iraqis were not ready to rally around a single leader. They responded far more enthusiastically to candidates who espoused a united Iraq that is Muslim, but not overtly sectarian.

“Maliki’s message was nationalist and broad,” said Jaber Habeeb, a professor of political science at Baghdad University who is also an independent Shiite member of Parliament. “In his speeches, he concentrated on rebuilding and securing the state more than using religious messages.”

Al-Maliki’s party won a clear plurality in the large provinces of Baghdad and Basra, both places where the prime minister waged military campaigns last year to halt the activities of mostly Shiite militias.

Tensions between Arabs and Kurds, which have threatened to erupt into violence in northern Iraq, were largely unresolved by the election. In Nineveh, the Kurds have had an overwhelming majority on the provincial council although they are a minority in the province, because most Arabs sat out the last election. This time, a new Arab nationalist party, Al Hadba, took 48.4 percent, by far the largest share of the votes. The outcome could right the imbalance in the provincial government, but it remains to be seen whether the current provincial council members will step down and allow the new council to be seated.

In neighboring Kirkuk Province, where a vote was not held, the tensions run even higher and the situation is even more uncertain. Decades of gerrymandering, ethnic cleansing and forced expulsions of Kurds under Saddam Hussein — and the intimidation of Arabs since 2003 — have made it impossible for Kirkuk’s Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Christian populations to agree on who is eligible to vote. Kirkuk and the three Kurdish provinces that make up the Kurdistan region were the only four of Iraq’s 18 provinces that did not hold elections.