Partial results from Iraq’s parliamentary election indicate that influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s alliance has taken the lead in the crucial vote, with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's bloc trailing in third place.
Iraq's electoral commission said early on May 14 that Sadr’s Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform was in the lead with 10 of the country's 19 provinces reporting from the May 12 vote, including the population centers of Baghdad and Basra.
Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri's Fatah Alliance closely followed in second place, while Abadi's Victory Alliance appeared to be performing poorly across majority Shi’a provinces that normally would be a strong base of support.
The election commission said Sadr and Amiri each won four of the 10 provinces where votes had been counted. However, Sadr’s bloc won significantly more votes in the capital, Baghdad, which has the highest number of seats.
Abadi, a Shi'a who has sought to balance the competing influence of Washington and Tehran, finished third in six provinces but came in fifth in the capital.
Election commission officials read out tallies for each candidate list on national TV. After 10 provinces were read out, Sadr's list had the highest popular vote.
Rankings could change, with results still to be reported from eight provinces. Among them was Nineveh, with the second-highest number of seats being contested.
When final figures are released later on May 14, the results could offer a significant indication of whether Iraq's government will continue its longstanding ties to the United States and the West under Abadi or whether it will tilt more toward Iran.
After results are finalized, the country’s prime minister will be chosen through negotiations to form a governing coalition, which could take months.
The prime minister post is reserved for a Shi'a, the parliamentary speaker is Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd. All three posts are chosen by parliament.
Sadr, an anti-American firebrand with a large following among Baghdad's urban poor, was once leader of the Mahdi Army, which battled U.S. forces in 2003.
The militia was disbanded in 2008 and replaced by his Peace Brigades, which helped push back Islamic State (IS) militant forces from areas near Baghdad in 2014 along with Iraqi government troops.
His father, the highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein.
Should Sadr prevail, it would mark a dramatic return to relevance for the cleric, who had been sidelined by Iran-backed rivals over recent years.
Meanwhile, Amiri spent more than two decades fighting Saddam from exile in Iran, and speaks fluent Persian.
Amiri leads the Badr Organization, which was the backbone of the volunteer forces that helped to defeat IS along with Iraqi government troops and U.S.-backed Western coalition forces.
Amiri hopes to capitalize on his battlefield successes. Victory for him would be seen as a big a win for Iran, which has sought to increase its influence in Iraq and the wider region.
The mostly peaceful vote was marred by a low turnout, with the election commission putting it at 44.5 percent, far below the 60 percent recorded in the previous election and the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some 22.5 million people were eligible to vote.