Shiite cleric Sadr leads in Iraq's initial election results

An Iraqi woman holds a picture of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as his followers celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, early Monday, May 14, 2018. Iraq's electoral commission announces influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is the current front-runner in national elections with official results in from just over half of the country's provinces. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

The Iraqi political coalition led by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr holds the lead in early returns from the country's national elections, while an alliance of candidates linked to Iraq's powerful Shiite paramilitary groups is in second

BAGHDAD — The political coalition of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took an early lead in Iraq's national elections in partial returns announced late Sunday by the Iraqi electoral commission.

An alliance of candidates linked to Iraq's powerful Shiite paramilitary groups was in second. The alliance is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, a former minister of transport with close ties to Iran who became a senior commander of paramilitary fighters in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi performed poorly across majority Shiite provinces that should have been his base of support.

The announcement came just over 24 hours after polls closed across the country amid record low voter turnout. It included full returns from only 10 of the country's 19 provinces, including the provinces of Baghdad and Basra.

Members of the national election commission read out vote tallies for each candidate list in each of the 10 provinces on national TV. By the end of the announcement, al-Sadr's list had the highest popular vote, followed by al-Amiri's.

Seats in parliament will be allocated proportionately to coalitions once all votes are counted. The commission gave no indication on when further results would be announced.

Celebrations erupted in Baghdad's Sadr City, an impoverished quarter that is home to some 3 million people and is named after the cleric's late father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadq al-Sadr. The younger al-Sadr campaigned on a cross-sectarian platform of fighting corruption and investing in services and struck a surprising alliance with the Communist Party in the capital.

The strong showing could be a testament to al-Sadr's loyal base of followers he maintains who cast their ballots despite a general mood of apathy that kept many Iraqis away from the polls. Al-Sadr commanded fighters in the war against the IS group and headed a powerful militia that fought U.S. forces in Iraq prior to 2011, but his 2018 campaign focused on social issues and eliminating government corruption.

Al-Abadi sought to retain his post as prime minister after overseeing the military defeat of the IS movement, but faced stiff competition from his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, as well as al-Sadr and the Fatah alliance of candidates with paramilitary ties.

Many of the candidates on Fatah were militia commanders before they cut their official ties with the force in order to seek office.

Fatah's strong result will be seen as a victory for Iran as it seeks to protect its interests in the Iraq, including the militias it finances and has sometimes directed to fight alongside its forces in Syria. Al-Sadr is a staunch foe of Iranian and American influence in Iraqi politics.

The elections held Saturday were the first since Iraq declared victory over Islamic State fighters and the fourth since the 2003 U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein. Officials said turnout was only 44 percent, the lowest ever since Saddam's ouster.

Any political party or alliance must gain a majority of Iraq's 329 seats in parliament to be able to choose a prime minister and form a government. Dozens of alliances ran for office in these elections and months of negotiations are expected before any one alliance can pull together the 165 required seats.

Until a new prime minister is chosen, al-Abadi will remain in office, retaining all his power.

Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker. Since the first elections following the 2003 U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority has held the position of prime minister, while the Kurds have held the presidency and the Sunnis have held the post of parliament speaker.

The constitution sets a quota for female representation, stating that no less than one-fourth of parliament members must be women. Nearly 2,600 women are running for office this year.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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