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Iraq Parliamentary Election: Shiite Cleric Takes The Lead


In Baghdad, supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr were celebrating an election shake-up last night.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

GREENE: Iraqis voted over the weekend in parliamentary elections, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's alliance has taken a beating. The Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's coalition has done a lot better than U.S. officials were expecting, and let's talk about what this might mean with NPR's Jane Arraf, who is in Baghdad.

Hi, Jane.


GREENE: So people were assuming that the prime minister was headed to win re-election, right? What happened here?

ARRAF: Well, really, it's the power of democracy, I suppose. A lot of people who wanted change came out to vote. A lot of people who were fed up with existing politicians didn't. And this isn't the full results. It's almost - it's more than half the country, though. So in this, we're seeing that the Sadr alliance, that went - headed by Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, came in either first or second in these provinces. Now, he's never run as a candidate, but he is a huge political force. And this new coalition that he put together - he decided to team up with communists. So there was a wide range of appeal for this particular - for his political list. And Abadi - hard to explain that one except that he's been around for a long time, and people wanted new faces.

GREENE: Don't I remember Sadr's name from when he led a militia - I mean, a militia that fought against U.S. troops, like, more than a decade ago? So what does that mean for the United States?

ARRAF: Well, they've welcomed the elections, so they can't now come out and say they don't like the result. But they've got to be concerned about this result because you're absolutely right. He led the Mahdi Army, and they were fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets after the U.S. invasion here. They had expected Abadi to win. He's seen as a moderate, and the U.S. has supported him. He's led the fight against ISIS. And then there is Muqtada Sadr. Now, Sadr didn't run for parliament, so he's not going to be in parliament or prime minister, but he heads this coalition in a lot of senses. He's a guy who will not meet with American officials. But here's the other thing. Everyone's concerned about, is he pro-Iran? Is he tied to Iran? And he's not really. He has a really uneasy relationship with Iran, actually, and he's portrayed himself as a nationalist. But the other thing is, where does this take the economy? - because you have Sadr promising all sorts of things that focuses on the poor, and then the communists, so that's going to be interesting to see where that goes.

GREENE: Well, Jane, I mean, you mentioned this is democracy, so it's hard to predict the results - but any more analysis of what happened here and, you know, something that might explain this defeat for the prime minister?

ARRAF: Yeah, you know, part of this was really clear, because when I was talking to Iraqi voters before the election, I was really surprised at how many of them said they wouldn't vote. And it wasn't just that they thought there was no point. They were actively angry, a lot of them. They've seen all of these parliaments. They've seen a lot of corruption, and they've seen no benefit. So there were a lot of people who stayed away. This was a very low turnout. And those that did come out wanted change, for the most part. Now, we have to remember that Muqtada Sadr does command a huge constituency because he's from a revered Shiite family. But what he did with this one is he took that support, and he told people, don't vote on the basis of religion, vote for people who can fix the government. And that's how they got a lot of these votes.

GREENE: All right, a big election in Iraq and an unexpected result. NPR's Jane Arraf covered it this weekend. She's in Baghdad. Thanks, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.