Widespread disillusionment with Iraq's current political class appears to have helped the political coalition of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr become the early front-runner in national elections marked by record low turnout. Partial returns of the 2018 vote—the first since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group—were announced late Sunday by the Iraqi electoral commission and put al-Sadr's political alliance in the lead in four provinces, including Baghdad. Al-Sadr is a strong Iraqi nationalist—he is critical of any outside influence in the country—and campaigned on a platform that criticized Iraq's current political leadership as deeply corrupt. He rose to prominence in Iraq after the 2003 US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein when he commanded a militia that fought American troops. He also commanded paramilitary forces in the war against ISIS.
The election came as the country deals with the disenfranchisement of the country's Sunni minority. Of more than 2 million Iraqis displaced by the war, the majority are Sunnis. Also at issue is the influence of Iran on the country: Iranian-backed Shiite militias who played a key role in defeating ISIS and were allied with the Shiite-led Baghdad government made significant electoral gains. Al-Sadr did not run for a seat in parliament and therefore cannot become prime minister. However, if his alliance wins the most seats, a member of his bloc will be tasked with forming a majority government and will appoint the country's next prime minister. Despite not holding an official office, al-Sadr exercises strong organizational control over his followers, per the AP.
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