Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate with portraits of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, after results of Iraq’s parliamentary election were announced in Baghdad, Iraq May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
By Ahmed Aboulenein and Raya Jalabi
BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Moqtada al-Sadr was leading in Iraq’s parliamentary election with over half of the votes counted, the electoral commission said on Sunday, a surprise comeback for the powerful nationalist Shi’ite cleric who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals.
Shi’ite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri’s bloc, which is backed by Tehran, was in second place, according to the count of over 95 percent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared to be running third. Security and commission sources had earlier said he was leading the election, which was held on Saturday and is the first since the defeat of Islamic State militants inside the country.
Turnout was 44.52 percent with 92 percent of votes counted, the Independent High Electoral Commission said – that was significantly lower than in previous elections. Full results are due to be officially announced on Monday.
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.
The commission did not announce how many seats each bloc had gained and said it would do so on Monday after announcing the results from the remaining provinces.
Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, came in third in six provinces but ran fifth in Baghdad.
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.
The results unexpectedly showed former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was touted as a serious challenger to Abadi, lagging behind.
The ranking of these blocs can still change with results yet to be announced from eight provinces, including Nineveh, which has the second-largest number of seats after Baghdad.
Abadi was viewed as a frontrunner before the election. His rivals were seen as Maliki and Amiri, both closer than Abadi to Iran, which has wide sway in Iraq as the primary Shi’ite power in the region.
SINGING AND DANCING
A Sadr victory or second-place finish would mark a surprise comeback by the cleric, who has a zealous following among the young, poor and dispossessed but has been sidelined by influential Iranian-backed figures.
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.
He derives much of his authority from his family. Sadr’s father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein. His father’s cousin, Mohammed Baqir, was killed by Saddam in 1980.
Celebrations erupted on the streets of Baghdad after the commission’s announcement, with thousands of Sadr’s supporters singing, chanting, dancing and setting off fireworks in the capital while carrying his picture and waving Iraqi flags.
“For the first time I can say congratulations to the leader and congratulations to the Iraqi people, congratulations on winning first place in Baghdad, and God willing we will be the first in Iraq,” said Abbas Allawi, a candidate on the Sadr-backed Sairoon list.
A document being circulated among journalists and analysts by a candidate in Baghdad showed Sadr had won the nationwide popular vote with over 1.3 million votes, followed by Amiri with over 1.2 million and Abadi with over 1 million.
Reuters could not independently verify the document’s authenticity but the numbers in it, which showed the results from all 18 provinces, matched those of the electoral commission in the 10 provinces for which it has announced results.
The nationwide popular vote does not directly correspond to the amount of seats each list gains in parliament.
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.
Abadi, a British-educated engineer who came to power four years ago after Islamic State seized a third of Iraq’s territory, received U.S. military support for Iraq’s army to defeat the Sunni Muslim militant group even as he gave free rein to Iran to back Shi’ite militias fighting on the same side.
If parliament chooses him as prime minister, Abadi will remain under pressure to maintain that balancing act amid tensions between Washington and Tehran over the nuclear accord.
Abadi was seen by some Iraqis as lacking charisma and ineffective. He had no powerful political machine of his own when he took office.
But the defeat of Islamic State and Abadi’s campaign to eradicate Iraq’s rampant corruption improved his standing.
Amiri’s Badr organisation played a key role in the battle against Islamic State. But some Iraqis resent his close ties to Tehran. The dissident-turned-militia leader spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran.
Whoever wins the most seats still must negotiate a coalition government, which must be formed within 90 days of the results being formally announced.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in BAGHDAD and Raya Jalabi in ERBIL; Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Huda Majeed, and Reuters Video News; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Michael Georgy; Editing by Catherine Evans and Paul Simao)