Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party has gained victory in the preliminary election results over Shi'ite religious parties during last weekend's provincial elections in Iraq.

The preliminary results reflect a resounding endorsement in provincial elections where Iraqis are choosing security over long-dominant religious parties in much of the country.

The success of Maliki's State of Law coalition in provincial polls in Baghdad and the Shi'ite south gives a leader once derided as weak a mandate for a strong central state, and crucial momentum before national elections later this year.

This shows that the Iraqi voter wants to hear nationalist speeches as well as religious speeches, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters by telephone from Kuwait.

The first priority for Iraqis is security. The prime minister achieved good security for Iraq. The Iraqi voter preferred to give his vote to the one who brought security.

The clearest victory was in Baghdad, where al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law received 38 percent of the vote, followed by allies of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni party with 9 percent each.

In Basra, the country's second biggest city, the prime minister's followers won 37 percent to 11.6 percent for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shiite party.

Both cities witnessed Shiite militia violence for years until al-Maliki ordered a crackdown last spring, ending the rule of gunmen.

Maliki, himself a Shi'ite with deep Islamist roots, campaigned on a non-sectarian law-and-order platform, even as his opponents adopted overtly religious slogans and images.

Other secularist and independent parties showed fairly good results well across Iraq, a contrast from the 2005 election which was swamped by religious parties.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has been until now the dominant party among Iraq's Shi'ite majority, however failed to win a single province despite relying on relentless Shi'ite religious images and slogans in its election campaigns.