Iraqi Voters Strengthen Hand of Militia Leader Who Battled US

Voting for Parliamentary Elections Begins in Iraq

An alliance backed by populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr took a surprise early lead as votes were counted in Iraq's election, a test of the country's efforts to recover from the long war with Islamic State as well as a gauge of the influence wielded by neighbouring Iran.

Influential Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, with realignment as a cross-sectarian anti-Iranian and pro-Arab nationalist figure, is a counterweight to the Conquest bloc and seemed the victor of the elections before this piece published.

The nationwide popular vote does not directly correspond to the amount of seats each list gains in parliament.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than one million votes and about 42 seats. Incumbent Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who had sought to reach across Iraq's sectarian divides, was trailing.

Sadr has led two uprisings against USA forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shiite leaders to distance himself from Iran.

Sadr has formed an unlikely alliance with communists and other independent secular supporters who joined protests he organised in 2016 to press the government to see through a move to stem endemic corruption.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi performed poorly across majority Shiite provinces that should have been his base of support.

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During the first parliamentary elections in Iraq after the victory over the terrorist group Islamic state in Diyala province ISIS militants made several attacks on polling stations.

Only about 44% of those eligible to vote bothered to cast a ballot, according to election officials. Then the winning political bloc from Saturday's election has 30 days to try form a government - or pass the task to someone else.

The cleric made his name leading two revolts against United States forces in Iraq, drawing support from poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other cities.

Until a new prime minister is chosen, al-Abadi will remain in office, retaining all his power. "Iraq first, eradicate corruption, and a technocratic government". Endemic corruption has eaten at the government's financial resources.

Many were dubious when the little-heralded Shiite politician came to power in 2014 as the jihadists' rampage across the country placed Iraq's very existence in doubt. Authorities are seeking as much as $88 billion for postwar reconstruction. His father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was killed in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein.

After the announcement that the Marching Towards Reform was ahead in Baghdad, supporters took the streets in the capital to celebrate a win. That they were able to express themselves democratically is even more encouraging.

Whoever wins the election will have to contend with the fallout from U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to quit Iran's nuclear deal, a move Iraqis fear could turn their country into a theatre of conflict between Washington and Tehran. The Pentagon has seen a continuing role for American forces in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last month that he would support a residual force if the Iraqi government agreed to the presence.

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