May 14 (UPI) -- The political coalition of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took an early lead in Iraq's national elections, officials said Monday.
Sadr, a opponent to both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, has made a comeback after being sidelined for years by Iranian-backed rivals. The leader of the al-Sairoon Coalition, he leads the Sadrist Movement and Iraqi Communist Party.
Sadr met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year to help broaden his regional support.
Election returns showed a coalition of candidates linked to Iraqi Shiite groups, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, was in second place.
Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi performed poorly in many of the majority Shiite provinces where he was expected to see the most support.
Abadi is neutral towards the United States and Iran.
"Abadi is acceptable to all major stakeholders including regional powers, Iran and the US," Fanar al-Hadad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera. "Everyone feels they can do business with him."
Both Sadr and Amiri finished first in four provinces where votes were counted, but the cleric's bloc won significantly more votes in Baghdad, which has the greatest number of seats.
Sadr will not become prime minister, as he did not officially run as a candidate, but his apparent victory would allow him to pick someone for the job. The other winning blocks will have to approve his nomination.
No single group is expected to gain an outright majority, meaning Abadi may form a coalition with Sadr and remain in power until a new prime minister is confirmed.