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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

Iraq's firebrand cleric Moqdata Al Sadr makes comeback in vote

Preliminary results suggest Al Sadr has beaten Haider Al Abadi in Baghdad

Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq, on May 12, 2018. Alaa al-Marjani / Reuters 
Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in the parliamentary election in Najaf, Iraq, on May 12, 2018. Alaa al-Marjani / Reuters 

Moqtada Al Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who led uprisings against United States troops, appears to have made a remarkable comeback in Iraq's parliamentary election after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals.

Although Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's list of candidates were leading the field after Saturday's vote, Mr Al Sadr's alliance was in second place, an election commission source and a security official told Reuters, citing unofficial results.

Preliminary results on Sunday night suggested Mr Al Sadr's list had won the most seats in the capital Baghdad, whilst Mr Al Abadi's list had slumped to fifth.

Mr Al Sadr made his name leading two uprisings against US forces in Iraq, drawing support from poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other cities. Washington called the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to Sadr, the biggest threat to Iraq's security.

As top politicians in suits voted at a Baghdad hotel on Saturday, in the first election since ISIS militants were defeated, Mr Al Sadr was shown walking to a polling station in a poor district to cast his ballot, dressed in his trademark turban and robe. The television footage of Mr Al Sadr voting reinforced his image as a maverick who appeals to Iraq's dispossessed.

Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr celebrate after the preliminary results of Iraq's May 2018 parliamentary elections are announced, in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. AP
Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr celebrate after the preliminary results of Iraq's May 2018 parliamentary elections are announced, in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. AP

If initial results are confirmed, British-educated Mr Al Abadi, a Shiite who as prime minister nurtured ties with Washington and Tehran, may have to form a coalition with Mr Al Sadr, who fought the Americans and is one of the few Shiite leaders to keep a distance with Iran, which has powerful influence in Iraq.

Mr Al Sadr has sought to broaden his regional support. Last year, he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a major US ally that is staunchly opposed to Iran.

Mr Al Sadr, who was shown sipping juice in a palace in the Saudi city of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, shares an interest in countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

Mr Al Sadr rose to prominence in the unrest and chaos that erupted in Iraq after US troops toppled Saddam Hussein's rule in 2003. Armed mostly with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Sadr's militia challenged the world's most powerful military as it tried to stabilise Iraq.

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Mr Al Sadr derives much of his authority from his family. His 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.

US officials and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mahdi Army of being behind many sectarian killings that ravaged Iraq. The US occupation authority issued an arrest warrant for him for his alleged role in the murder of a rival cleric.

Mr Al Sadr has disavowed violence against fellow Iraqis and in 2008 ordered his militia to become a humanitarian group.

He can still mobilise thousands of supporters to press his agenda, and he formed an unlikely alliance with communists and other independent secular supporters to demand the formation of a government of independent technocrats in a bid to end corruption.

"We call on the Iraqi people to stage a white revolution, everybody must cast his ballot, nobody should abstain from voting, it is the last chance for change," Mr Al Sadr said in a televised speech in April.

His list is known as "Sairoon" in Arabic, or On The Move.

"Our programme is about building effective corruption-free state institutions, rehabilitating and expanding infrastructures, providing essential services to the poor, like health and education," said Jumah Bahadily, a politician in the Sadrist movement.

Mr Al Sadr's support extends to Iraq's crumbling second city of Basra, in the Shiite heartland in the south of the country and near to OPEC's main oilfields.

"We defeated the corrupt people which have ruled Iraq since 2003," said Mohanad Sahib, a 38-year-old engineer in Basra, who voted for Sairoon. "They are from the people."

Some voters said a call by the influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, for voters to reject corrupt candidates was a tacit signal to back Sairoon.

"It's correct he didn't mention them directly but he meant this," said Mohamed Matar, who also supported Mr Al Sadr's list.

But more mainstream politicians have sought to undermine support for Mr Al Sadr in the past. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, a close ally of Iran, ordered a crackdown on the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2008, calling its members ''outlaws''. Dozens were killed.

Mr Al Maliki's Dawa party has also been fielding candidates in this election.

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