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BAGHDAD, Iraq — A coalition headed by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took an early lead in Iraq's national elections after partial returns were announced late Sunday by the country's electoral commission.
In second place were an alliance of candidates linked to Iraq's powerful Shiite paramilitary groups, headed by Hadi al-Amiri. Al-Amiri is a former transport minister whose Badr organization played a key role in the battle against Islamic State. But some Iraqis resent his close ties to Tehran. The dissident-turned-militia leader spent more than two decades fighting Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran.
Incumbent prime minister Haider al-Abadi performed poorly across the majority Shiite provinces that should have been his base of support.
Unlike al-Abadi, who is a rare ally of both the U.S. and Iran, al-Sadr is an enemy of both countries. Al-Sadr will not become prime minister as he did not run as a candidate in the election but his apparent victory puts him in a position to pick someone for the job.
The early results came via a televised announcement of vote tallies for each province's candidate list. They were announced just over 24 hours after polls closed across the country amid record low voter turnout. The electoral commission gave no indication of when further results would be announced.
Parliamentary seats are allocated proportionately to coalitions once all votes are counted.
Celebrations erupted in Baghdad's Sadr City — an impoverished neighborhood home to some 3 million people named after the al-Sadr'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.
Al-Sadr also commanded fighters in the war against ISIS and headed a powerful militia that fought U.S. forces in Iraq prior to 2011. He is a staunch foe of Iranian and American influence in Iraq.
The elections held Saturday were the first since Iraq declared victory over ISIS and the fourth since the 2003 U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein. Officials said turnout was only 44 percent, the lowest 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.
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.
Iraq has been ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries, with high unemployment, rife poverty, weak public institutions and bad services despite high oil revenues for many years.