Early counts show Muqtada al-Sadr has become the unexpected frontrunner. The cleric led the insurgency against US troops after 2003 and later became a strong critic of corruption in Iraq's political system.
Supporters hold a banner with the picture of Muqtada al-Sadr in a spontaneous rally after preliminary results were anounced
Iraq's electoral commission released the initial results of the parliamentary elections in the early hours of Monday. With 95 percent of the votes from 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces tallied — more than half of the total votes — the firebrand nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was leading, in what would be an unexpected political comeback.
If results hold, they would spell bad news for the country's current leader, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had been seen as the narrow frontrunner prior to the vote.
Read more: Iraq's political landscape in disarray
Potential problems in Kirkuk: Tensions erupted in the ethnically diverse province of Kirkuk on Saturday night after preliminary results showed that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was making significant gains.
Security forces were called on to take control of the situation and maintain "neutrality" in the electoral process. The Arab and Turkmen political parties in Kirkuk have given an independent commission in charge of the election 24 hours to start a manual recount, local politician Ershad Salihi, the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, said.
Al-Sadr's supporters jubilant: After the announcement that Muqtada al-Sadr's movement Marching Towards Reform was leading the polls in Baghdad, supporters took to the streets in the capital to celebrate a win.
Supporters, mostly young people, waved flags, held pictures of the nationalist cleric, and set off fireworks. Al-Sadr campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and formed an unlikely alliance with communists and other independent secular supporters.
Trouble for the United States? Muqtada al-Sadr has a colorful history with Washington. A militia under his control waged a brutal and costly insurgency against coalition troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US labeled him a "terrorist" and issued an arrest warrant for the cleric, who then fled to Iran to enroll in religious studies.
But when US troops were withdrawn in 2012, al-Sadr came back to Iraq and instructed his army to lay down their arms. The cleric withdrew from politics, later re-emerging as a fierce critic of Prime Minister al-Abadi in 2016.
jcg/aw (Reuters, dpa, AP)