by RAY FLEMING
IT'S ironic that the first hard evidence of the success of George W Bush's policies in Iraq should have come a couple of weeks after he left the White House -- and, of course, almost six years since he ordered the invasion of the country. The results of the Iraq provincial elections held last weekend show that the hard-line religious parties have lost ground while Dawa, the party of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, was given a vote of confidence. So far, so good. But there are reservations to be made. Troublesome areas like the key Kurdish provinces and the region of Kirkuk were excluded from the ballot, apparently because they would almost certainly would have used the opportunity to vote for candidates in favour of separation from the rest of Iraq. So that is a problem postponed, not dealt with. Then, only fifty per cent of those eligible to vote took the trouble to do so -- a disappointing turnout and one that cannot be taken as altogether representative of Iraq opinion, although the strong participation of Sunni voters compared favourably with the boycott they imposed in the 2005 election. The parliamentary elections due to be held later this year will be a sterner test for Mr al-Maliki and his supporters but they are entitled to be encouraged by the relatively peaceful atmosphere in which these provincial polls were conducted and by the evidence they provided that the religious hold on voters may have been loosened.