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By Ahmed Aboulenein and Maher Chmaytelli
BAGHDAD (Reuters)

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States, has all but won Iraq’s parliamentary election, the electoral commission said, in a surprise turn of fortune for the Shi’ite leader

In the first election since Islamic State was defeated in the country, Iran-backed Shi’ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc was in second place, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once seen as the front-runner, trailed in third.

The preliminary results were based on a count of more than 91 percent of the votes cast in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

 

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf
Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

 

Sadr‘s bloc did not run in the remaining two provinces, Kurdish Dohuk and the ethnically-mixed oil province of Kirkuk. The results there, which may be delayed due to tensions between local parties, will not affect Sadr’s standing.

Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shi’ite majority into power.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shi’ite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

 

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attends to cast his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf
Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attends to cast his vote at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

 

Despite the election setback, Abadi might still be granted a second term in office by parliament and on Monday he called on all political blocs to respect the results and suggested he was willing to work with Sadr to form a government.

“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption,” Abadi said in a live televised address. Corruption has been at the top of Sadr’s agenda for several years.

 

Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate after results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced in Baghdad
Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate after results of Iraq’s parliamentary election were announced in Baghdad, Iraq May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

 

Projecting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, Sadr has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed, but he had been sidelined by influential Iran-backed figures.

He cannot become prime minister as he did not run in the election, though his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.

But even then, his bloc might not necessarily form the next government. Whoever wins the most seats must negotiate a coalition government in order to have a majority in parliament. The government should be formed within 90 days of the official results.

 

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visits his father's grave after parliamentary election results were announced, in Najaf
Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visits his father’s grave after parliamentary election results were announced, in Najaf, Iraq May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

 

Saturday’s election is the first since the defeat of Islamic State last year. The group overran a third of Iraq in 2014.

Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said, the lowest participation rate in Iraq’s post-Saddam history. Full results are due to be officially announced later on Monday.

 

ELECTION CALCULUS

Sadr and Amiri both came in first in four of the 10 provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric’s bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.

A document provided to Reuters by a candidate in Baghdad that was also circulating among journalists and analysts showed results from all 18 provinces.

 

 

Reuters could not independently verify the document’s authenticity but the results in it for the 16 announced provinces were in line with those announced by the commission.

Reuters calculations based on the document showed Sadr had won the nationwide popular vote with over 1.3 million votes and gained around 54 of parliament’s 329 seats.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than 1 million votes and about 42 seats. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran like Amiri, came in fourth with around 25 seats.

 

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