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    Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr (C-L) shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag while surrounded by people outside a polling station in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018 as the country votes in the first parliamentary election since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group

    Meet the Iraqi Shiite Cleric Whose Coalition Just Won the Country's Election

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    Sairun, an ideologically diverse electoral coalition led by influential Iraqi Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, secured a comfortable lead in Saturday's parliamentary vote, giving its leader the chance to determine the country's political future. But who exactly is al-Sadr, and what does he want for Iraq? Sputnik takes a closer look.

    According to Iraq's electoral commission, the coalition of the 44-year-old populist cleric, an anti-corruption activist and former anti-American militia leader, has won a plurality across much of the country. Amid a voter turnout rate of 44.52 percent, or 10.7 million people, the Sairun bloc took at least 1.3 million votes, giving it 54 seats in the country's 328-seat unicameral parliament.

    Sairun's electoral success was an unpleasant surprise for the Nasr coalition of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, supported by Washington, as well as the Shiite Fatah Alliance of ex-transport minister and militia commander Hadi Al-Amiri, a prominent ally of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. With the two blocs broadly considered the favorites to win Saturday's vote, the al-Sadr-led coalition's unexpected result appears to have put a spoke in its plans.

    Al-Sadr himself did not run and is not eligible to become the country's next leader. Still, his bloc's strong result means he has a chance to serve as a political kingmaker.

    Enemy of America, But No Ally to Iran

    Coming from a well-known family of Shiite theologians, Moqtada Al-Sadr first made a name for himself in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At that time, he organized a political and military movement known as the Mahdi Army in the Sadr City area of Baghdad and further south, becoming a thorn in Washington's side and waging a guerrilla war against the coalition occupation forces. After the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, al-Sadr temporarily retreated from politics, re-emerging in the mid-2010s to criticize government corruption, challenge Baghdad's warming ties with Tehran and urge all foreign forces, including Iranian ones, to leave the country after the end of the war against Daesh.*

    Political Transformation: From Radicalism to Moderation

    Al-Sadr's return to the political spotlight began in 2016 when, together with Iraq's not insignificant Communist Party, the former militia leader organized mass anti-corruption demonstrations in the country's capital. The protests, which soon turned into weekly affairs, saw the cleric calling for reforms, the removal of incompetent ministers and the elimination of the religion-based quotas that determine the composition of the cabinet. Only Iraq's difficult war against Daesh seemed to restrain al-Sadr and his followers from overthrowing the government entirely. Notably, Mahdi Army veterans took part in the war.

    Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest demanding an overhaul of the elections supervision commission ahead of provincial elections due in September, in Baghdad,Iraq February 11, 2017
    © REUTERS / Alaa Al-Marjani
    Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest demanding an overhaul of the elections supervision commission ahead of provincial elections due in September, in Baghdad,Iraq February 11, 2017

    After Baghdad declared victory over Daesh in late 2017, al-Sadr announced plans to create a new bloc including his Sadrist Movement, Communists and other parties to contest the May 15 parliamentary elections.

    Visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017, and calls for Iranian ally President Bashar Assad to step down in Syria in April of that year, have prompted concerns from some observers in Tehran. However, al-Sadr has presented himself as a peacemaker, offering to mediate negotiations to iron out difficulties in relations between the Gulf monarchy and the Islamic Republic.

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 30, 2017
    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 30, 2017

    Enjoying widespread support among the country's poor and dispossessed, particularly the country's Shiite majority, al-Sadr now has the opportunity to help determine the country's political future. 

    The Sairun bloc's next task will be to negotiate with other blocs to try to determine the next government. Al-Sadr's win does not necessarily imply al-Abadi's ouster. In late 2017, the cleric called on Abadi to "finish what he began in the past four years." On Monday, as news of his unexpected victory emerged, al-Sadr called on the country's main coalitions to work together for the sake of Iraq's future. 

    Given the concessions and sharing of power that will be required of any new coalition government, it's uncertain how al-Sadr's political rise will affect Baghdad's partnership with Iran and the United States, or the Iraqi military's ongoing campaign of airstrikes in Syria against remnants of the Daesh caliphate. In any case, the next government, to be formed on the basis of Saturday's vote, will have the unenviable task of governing Iraq for the next four years.

    *A terrorist group banned in Russia.

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    election results, parliamentary elections, Muqtada al-Sadr, Iran, Iraq, United States
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