An alliance headed by a controversial cleric has emerged as the likely winner in Iraq’s first national elections since it declared victory over the Islamic State.
Moqtada al Sadr – once dubbed the “most dangerous man in Iraq” – could now decide the country’s next premier, after running a campaign against corruption and sectarianism.
He emerged as a surprise frontrunner following the weekend vote, which previously attracted headlines chiefly for a historically low turnout.
Just 44.5% of Iraqis cast a ballot to decide the makeup of its 329-seat parliament, the lowest proportion for 15 years.
Mr al Sadr is thought to have appealed to Iraqis disillusioned with what they see as an out-of-touch political elite, and has had an unpredictable and often violent career on the sidelines of Iraqi politics.
After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq the cleric headed a group of fighters called the Mahdi army, who were responsible for brutal violence that targeted both foreign troops and Sunni Iraqis.
But more recently Mr Al-Sadr has repositioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist with his Marching Toward Reform alliance.
Critical of both Iranian and American influence and sectarian conflicts in Iraq, he has worked to forge diverse alliances with communists, Sunnis and independents.
He is one of few Shia leaders to have distanced himself from Iran – the regional Shia power with influence in Shia majority Iraq – as well as fiercely criticising and fighting against a US presence in the country.
The results will likely prove unsettling for the US, which had backed Haider al Abadi, the incumbent prime minister who planned to keep US troops in the country.
The favourite is now trailing in third, with second place after Mr al Sadr’s coalition going to a list linked to Shia paramilitary forces that fought with the state against IS militants.
Mr al Sadr did not stand as a candidate for premiership and cannot lead the country, but he is now positioned as kingmaker in what could be weeks of deal-making to decide the final makeup of government.
He has indicated he may support a broad-based coalition that would likely include Mr al Abadi’s alliance.
In a televised address on Monday, the incumbent prime minister hailed the winning lists and urged all sides to “respect the results”.
At the last released count late on Monday night, with 91% of the votes counted in 16 out of 18 provinces, the Marching Toward Reform alliance remained in first place.