Iraq election: Coalition led by nationalist cleric takes shock lead as vote count continues

Iraq election: Coalition led by nationalist cleric takes shock lead as vote count continues

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(The Independent ) A populist coalition formed by nationalist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has taken a surprise lead in Iraq’s election, putting a dent in prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s re-election bid.

The country’s electoral commission released results for 10 of the 19 provinces on Sunday evening, but has given no indication as to when more returns would be announced.

Mr al-Sadr appears to have tapped into growing public resentment in what some perceive as a corrupt political elite at the head of government.

Running a campaign highly critical of both the United States and Iran, the controversial cleric and militia leader has struck a chord with millions of poor Shia voters.

The 44-year-old will not become prime minister if his coalition wins as he did not stand in the election, but would be in a position to play kingmaker in the increasingly likely event of victory.

An election win would mark a stunning comeback for Mr al-Sadr, sidelined by Iranian-backed rivals as Tehran began asserting its influence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Virtually unknown outside his home nation before the US invasion, Mr al-Sadr soon became a symbol of resistance to foreign occupation.

Much of his authority derives from his family, including his father, the grand ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated for defying Saddam in 1999.

He became the first to form a Shia militia to fight against American troops after the 2003 war.

The Pentagon would later call his Mehdi army the biggest threat to Iraq’s security after he led two uprisings against US forces.

As news spread of Mr al-Sadr’s gains at the ballot box, some of his followers celebrated in Baghdad, chanting “Iran out”.

“Iraq is rich, the country doesn’t need Iran, it can stand on its feet and be prosperous it just needs good management,” said Mohammed Sadeq, a trader in the city of Hilla who voted for Mr al-Sadr’s list.

The cleric struck unlikely alliances in the formation of his coalition, shocking many by siding with secularists and the Iraqi Communist Party to form the bloc.

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