Shiite Cleric Who Once Fought U.S. Leads in Iraqi Election Count

(Bloomberg) -- An alliance backed by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada 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 neighboring Iran.

The Saeroon list of candidates headed by al-Sadr, a former militia commander who led attacks on American forces after the 2003 invasion but now targets Iraq’s political establishment over issues like corruption, also looked set to easily win the capital Baghdad, according to results announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission.

Coming a close second in the national vote was the Fateh bloc of Hadi al-Amiri, whose Iran-backed paramilitary force played a prominent role in defeating Islamic State during years of fighting, Saeroon and Fateh each lead in four provinces out of 10. Incumbent Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who had sought to reach across Iraq’s sectarian divides, was trailing.

Saturday’s vote was the first in the holder of the world’s fifth-largest proven reserves of crude oil since the jihadists’ proto-state was largely dismantled. Iraq’s many political factions mean a government may only be formed after drawn out negotiations. Authorities are seeking as much as $88 billion for postwar reconstruction.

Iran has held major sway over Iraq’s governments since the 2003 war ended Sunni minority rule, but campaigning saw multiple appeals to Iraqi nationalism, especially from al-Sadr. The ballot comes at a sensitive time for the Islamic Republic, which is being confronted by the Trump administration as well as a group of Gulf foes.

Al-Sadr has won the attention of some of those regional rivals. The United Arab Emirates flew him in for talks last year, following a meeting the cleric held with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the desert kingdom. Financial aid and deeper ties were discussed, according to al-Sadr’s website.

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