Iraqi Voters Strengthen Hand of Militia Leader Who Battled US

Firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose militia killed British and US troops during Iraq War leads race to be country's

The surprise front-runner in early returns was an alliance led by nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a longtime enemy of the United States - but also an adversary of Iran's local clients.

Shi'ite militia chief Hadi al-Amiri's bloc, which is backed by Tehran, was in second place, according to the count of more than 95 per cent of the votes cast in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Sadr's ascendancy comes at the expense of incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the preferred candidate of the United States, who came in third overall.

The media bureau of the Joint Operations Command, in a statement released on Monday, announced that F-16 fighter jets had bombed and destroyed a "logistic headquarters" for the terrorist in al-Dushashiya desert region near the border with Iraq.

The results included Baghdad, where the Sadr-backed list won significantly more seats than Abadi's.

In a tweet he appeared to point towards a broad technocrat coalition with leading blocs, including Abadi's, but left main challenger the Conquest Alliance off the list.

Sadr first came to prominence as a preacher in the weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2003, opposing the US-led occupation. The commission did not announce how many seats each bloc had gained and said it would do so after announcing the results from the remaining provinces.

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Zeid al-Zamili, 33, described the vote as "a victory over the corrupt" and a "new chapter for the Iraqi people". Endemic corruption has eaten at the governments financial resources.

Abadi was viewed as a frontrunner before the election.

Abadi has been mainly concerned with fending off Shia Muslim groups other than Sadr's alliance, which are seeking to pull the country closer to Tehran.

Political power in Iraq is traditionally divided along sectarian lines among the offices of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.

Whoever emerges as premier will face the mammoth task of rebuilding a country left shattered by the battle against Islamic State - with donors already pledging $30 billion. While his Mahdi army was once regarded as being heavily reliant on Iranian-supplied expertise, Sadr has now positioned himself as an opponent of Iranian influence - at least when his rivals such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are involved.

Hadi al-Amiri is the head of one of Iraq's most powerful Shia paramilitary groups backed by Tehran, whose forces ended up battling alongside the USA to oust Daesh militants.

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