updated 4/2/2010 12:07:57 PM ET 2010-04-02T16:07:57

A leading Iranian-backed Shiite party offered support for a secular candidate for prime minister in Iraq — a major blow to the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki.

It was the latest boost for Ayad Allawi, whose bloc has emerged as the front-runner to form a new government after parliamentary elections that left him two seats ahead of al-Maliki's mainly Shiite list.

The announcement by Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, came hours before followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr voted in an unofficial referendum on which candidate their movement should support.

Friday's vote has no legal authority but could give the Sadrist leadership an excuse not to support al-Maliki and openly back another candidate under the guise of following what the people want.

The Sadrists and al-Hakim's party are united under a Shiite religious umbrella known as the Iraqi National Alliance, which has emerged in a kingmaker position as the third-biggest winner in the March 7 vote, with a combined 70 seats in the 325-member parliament.

Both parties were long allied with al-Maliki but broke with the prime minister in recent years after he backed U.S.-Iraqi forces in offensives that routed the Sadrists and sought to distance himself from their hard-line religious stance.

Cross-sectarian group
Al-Hakim said his party, which has strong ties with Iran, said he was open to an alliance with Allawi's Iraqiya list, a cross-sectarian grouping that drew on heavy Sunni support to eke out a two-seat lead over al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.

Video: Allawi: Iraq needs a government ‘with a mission’ That gave a pivotal role to the INA, particularly al-Sadr, whose supporters won at least 39 seats to become the largest bloc within the grouping.

"We will not participate in the next government without Allawi's (Iraqiya Party slate)," al-Hakim said in remarks broadcast late Thursday on his party's TV station.

He also rejected allegations that Allawi's list had ties to Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath party, an issue that has stoked sectarian tensions during political maneuvering before and after the elections.

"I can assure you that the Iraqiya list is not a Baathist one," he told hundreds of loyalists during a meeting in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr, who is based in Iran, has withheld his backing from both big winners in the March 7 election, saying he wants his supporters to make the choice for him. The Shiite cleric's endorsement would be a valuable prize for candidates scrambling to get enough parliamentary support to form a government.

His followers set up polling tents across Baghdad and other predominantly Shiite cities, drawing hundreds of people, some of them fingering prayer beads and holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun. Organizers expected to release results Sunday following two days of voting.

Election workers acknowledged that only voters' conscience stopped them from casting more than one ballot. At one largely deserted polling place in Baghdad, young children were seen filling out ballots.

Besides Allawi and al-Maliki, the other candidates on the ballot are: former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, or Mohammed Jaffar al-Sadr who ran on al-Maliki's list but has al-Sadr family ties. Voters also could write in another choice.

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