Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s party was the biggest winner in an Iraqi election on Monday, raising the number of seats he holds in parliament, according to preliminary results, officials and a spokesperson for the Sadrist Movement.
The initial results showed that Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki looked set to have the next largest win among Shi’ite parties.
Iraq’s Shia groups have controlled governments and government formation since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and catapulted the Shi’ite majority and the Kurds to power.
Sunday’s election was held several months early, in response to mass protests in 2019 that toppled a government and showed widespread anger against political leaders whom many Iraqis say have enriched themselves at the expense of the country.
But a record low turnout suggested that an election billed as an opportunity to wrest control from the ruling elite would do little to dislodge sectarian religious parties in power since 2003.
A count based on initial results from several Iraqi provinces plus the capital Baghdad, verified by local government officials, suggested Sadr had won more than 70 seats, which if confirmed could give him considerable influence in forming a government.
A spokesperson for Sadr’s office said the number was 73 seats. Local news outlets published the same figure.
An official at Iraq’s electoral commission said Sadr had come first but did not immediately confirm how many seats his party had won.
The initial results also showed that pro-reform candidates who emerged from the 2019 protests had gained several seats in the 329-member parliament.
Iran-backed parties with links to militia groups accused of killing some of the nearly 600 people who died in the protests took a blow, winning less seats than in the last election in 2018, according to the initial results and local officials.
Sadr has increased his power over the Iraqi state since coming first in the 2018 election where his coalition won 54 seats.
The unpredictable populist cleric has been a dominant figure and often kingmaker in Iraqi politics since the US invasion.
He opposes all foreign interference in Iraq, whether by the US, against which he fought an insurgency after 2003, or by neighboring Iran, which he has criticized for its close involvement in Iraqi politics.
Sadr, however, is regularly in Iran, according to officials close to him, and has called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, where Washington maintains a force of around 2,500 in a continuing fight against Islamic State.