BAGHDAD — He is best known to American officials as the firebrand cleric and sectarian Shiite militia leader who made life miserable for Iraq’s Sunni minority and for U.S. military and political planners in the chaotic, violent early days after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Fifteen years later, after the surprising results of Iraq’s elections Sunday, Muqtada al-Sadr looks to have a new role: kingmaker.
In an upset for U.S.-backed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory List, the Sa’iroon alliance of Mr. al-Sadr and Iraqi communists held the lead Monday night in six of Iraq’s 18 provinces and came in second in four others.
Election officials, basing their estimates Monday evening on 91 percent of the votes cast in 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces where Mr. al-Sadr had campaigned, said it was virtually certain that his election group had won the most votes in the closely watched but sparsely attended poll.
Mr. al-Abadi, who ran as the leader who helped defeat Islamic State but faced popular unhappiness over the state of the economy and state services, struck a conciliatory tone despite his thrashing at the polls. There is still a good chance, election analysts said, that he could keep his post in coalition negotiations aimed at excluding Iranian-backed militia leader Hadi al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance from dominating the Iraqi parliament.
“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq that’s free of corruption,” Mr. al-Abadi said.
The early ballots of some 700,000 security personnel and diaspora remain uncounted, meaning Mr. al-Abadi could get a boost.
But it is Mr. al-Sadr’s unexpectedly strong showing that has been the story of this vote. While still able to mobilize his Shiite base, he has evolved considerably in the years since the 2003 U.S. invasion. He has refashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist critical of corruption, opposing an overbearing role for Shiite Iran in Iraqi affairs and even reaching out to Sunnis and secularists in recent years to broaden his political base.