Early results in Iraq election favor populist cleric al-Sadr

BAGHDAD (AP) — A populist coalition organized by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as the front-runner Monday with more than half the vote counted in Iraq’s national elections.

Partial returns from Saturday’s balloting — the first since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State militant group — were announced by the country’s electoral commission and put al-Sadr’s political alliance in the lead in six provinces, including Baghdad.

Remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces and inciting sectarian bloodshed against the Sunni population, al-Sadr has in recent years sought to recast himself as a populist, railing against corruption and failing services and striking a political alliance with Iraq’s secularists and Communist Party.

None of the competing blocs appears on track to win a majority in parliament and name a prime minister. As the results stand, al-Sadr’s bloc will be able to take a leading role in the political horse-trading to find a compromise candidate. Because al-Sadr did not run for a seat, he cannot become prime minister, but his deputies in parliament are expected to follow his directives.

Al-Sadr commands the devotion of millions of Iraqis who have sent their sons and husbands to fight for his militia from the early days of the U.S. occupation.

“We are joyous,” said Jaafar Abdeljaleed, 28, who added that his father was killed fighting U.S.-led forces in 2003. “Sayyid Muqtada loves the nation, and so do I.”

The election came as Iraq is struggling to bring down soaring unemployment and reintegrate its disenfranchised Sunni minority. More than 2 million people are displaced by war, most of them Sunnis.

Also at issue is how to integrate the country’s vast and predominantly Shiite militia structure into the security forces. The militias, known collectively as the Hashd Shaabi, are key conduit of influence for Iran into Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has sent many of them to fight.

An electoral alliance of Hashd-linked candidates, headed by militia commander Hadi al-Amiri, is currently in second place in the election returns.

Al-Amiri maintains close ties to Iran. He also has said he is open to U.S. training of Iraq’s military and regularly meets with U.S. diplomats in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr commands his own militia that fought against IS militants, but he has disavowed any Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq, and he has called for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. His former Mahdi Army fought American forces for years. In 2014, he reorganized his fighters under the name the Peace Brigades — Saraya Salam.

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