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ERBIL, Iraq—Iraqi voters appeared to hand a political breakthrough in national elections to populist cleric
forcing the U.S. and Iran to confront the prospect that a frequent critic of both may take the lead in selecting Iraq’s next premier.
who had implicit American support, and Iran-aligned candidates lagged behind Mr. Sadr’s unlikely alliance with Iraq’s communists.
A firebrand whose Mahdi Army militia once fought U.S. forces and was implicated in sectarian killings, Mr. Sadr has since entered the political mainstream with a nationalist message that rejects influence from Iraq’s two biggest allies, the U.S. and Iran.
Despite Mr. Sadr’s hostility to the U.S., his own preferences may correspond more closely with Washington’s than those of Iran. He has engaged with American Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia and shown support for Mr. Abadi, who led the country to victory over Islamic State and has sought to reach across Iraq’s sectarian divide.
“The Iraqi political camp that is closer to Iran’s interests has lost the electoral battle and the other camp has won,” said
a political analyst and professor at Baghdad University.
With preliminary results counted in 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Mr. Sadr’s Sairun coalition was near the top in all of them. More results are expected sometime Monday night and could still give Mr. Abadi a narrow win by the numbers, but Mr. Sadr is now expected to have a strong hand in forming the next government.
The results chart a comeback for Mr. Sadr that began two years ago when his followers breached the blast walls surrounding Iraq’s “Green Zone”—the heavily fortified center of Iraq’s government—and invaded parliament demanding an end to corruption.
Those protests gave birth to Mr. Sadr’s coalition with the Iraqi Communist Party for Saturday’s election.
As one of the few Iraqi politicians with a real popular base, Mr. Sadr benefited from a historically low turnout reflecting deep disillusion with the political elite that has governed the country since it became a democracy 15 years ago.
“Sadr had a prophecy that came true: he said people will win over corrupt politicians and that is what happened,” said
24, a Baghdad student who took part in the Green Zone protest and voted for Mr. Sadr on Saturday.
“Then, people stormed the Green Zone and scared the corrupt politicians. Now… the Sairun coalition stormed the elections,” Mr. Hussein said.
Mr. Sadr has long held sway with low-income Shiites and took up the mantle from his father who opposed the dictatorship of
and was shot dead in the street in a suspected assassination.
Mr. Sadr had 34 lawmakers in the last parliament, but, in a populist stroke, he banned them from running in Saturday’s election, seeking to appeal to voters fed up with old faces.
Among the fresh faces on Sadr’s list was Montadher al-Zaidi, a journalist who won notoriety by hurling a shoe at President
George W. Bush
during a press conference following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“Our main goal is to restore the sovereignty of Iraqi decision-making away from both Iranian and American influence,” Mr. Zaidi said.
Iraq’s leaders face a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding areas devastated by the war and preventing the resurgence of Islamic State. Iraq needs more than $80 billion to fix the damage done by Islamic State, according to the World Bank, but is struggling to attract foreign investment.
Mr. Sadr himself is unlikely to be prime minister preferring to remain a spiritual leader untainted by taking office.
If he keeps his advantage, he will need to choose at least one of the main runners-up as a partner to form the biggest bloc, which is entitled to nominate a prime minister in the first session of parliament.
Results so far indicate Mr. Sadr would have to choose between either Mr. Abadi’s coalition or the Fateh alliance representing Shiite militias with close ties to Iran.
Of those two options, Mr. Sadr appears closest to Mr. Abadi. In an interview last year, Mr. Sadr said he supported a second term for Mr. Abadi, praising him for regaining control of the country from Islamic State and for the way he handled Kurds after they held a referendum on independence last year without extensive bloodshed.
“All of this makes him capable of leading Iraq in the coming stage,” he said.
Mr. Sadr’s relations with the “Fateh” alliance meanwhile are poor. In the same interview, Mr. Sadr warned against politicians exploiting the sacrifices of Shiite volunteers who fought Islamic State, in a clear swipe at the Fateh alliance, which has sought to translate into political influence.
—Ghassan Adnan contributed to this article.