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How Iraq election frontrunner Muqtada al-Sadr tapped widespread frustration

A firebrand cleric is leading the vote count after Iraq’s weekend parliamentary election. Results from Iraq's electoral commission show a startling apparent upset by the party led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a former symbol of sectarianism and resistance turned populist politician. U.S.-backed incumbent prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi is running third in most districts. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was also a momentous day in Iraq following a weekend parliamentary election that has left a firebrand cleric leading the vote count.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the U.S.-backed incumbent prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is running third in most districts and a distant fifth in Baghdad.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr flooded the streets of the Baghdad district named for the Shiite cleric's family. They celebrated a former symbol of sectarianism and resistance who's transformed himself into a populist leader on the verge of leading Iraq.

    Iraq's electoral commission has released results from 90 percent of the country, showing a startling apparent upset. Sadr's nationalist alliance, Saeroun, as the front-runner, and Sadr himself as expected kingmaker.

    Sadr rose to prominence after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 2004, Sadr's Mahdi Army fought a brutal, bloody insurgency against coalition forces, demanding they withdraw from the country. His men also targeted Sunni Iraqis, helping spark the civil war that ripped through Iraq in 2006.

    Recently, he rebranded himself as a nationalist, anti-U.S. and anti-Iran. He tapped into widespread disappointment that neither country helped improve Iraqi lives. And he campaigned against endemic corruption. His allies were communists and secular parties, and he wants a government of technocrats.

  • Muqtada al-Sadr (through translator):

    We are moving to a free and independent Iraq. We're going to move to an Iraq safe from corruption, terrorism and militias.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In second place, the Iranian-backed Hadi Al-Amiri, and in third place, the U.S.-backed current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. In a national address, Al-Abadi called on Iraqis to respect the results.

  • Haider Al-Abadi (through translator):

    We are ready to work and cooperate on forming the strongest government for Iraq, free of corruption, hateful confessionalism and unsubjected to a foreign agenda, a government which is capable of preventing a return of terrorism and keeping the country away from sliding into marginal conflicts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For four years, Iraq's been fighting ISIS, but the vote was remarkably peaceful, and defined by bread and butter issues. Iraqi unemployment is soaring.

    The country needs $80 billion of reconstruction. Two million, mostly Sunnis, are displaced. But turnout was low, and skepticism high. Some Baghdad residents are skeptical this political upset can upset a corrupt system.

  • Man (through translator):

    Nothing will be changed. The same misery for the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If his bloc is the confirmed winner, Sadr won't become prime minister. But 15 years after the U.S. invasion, the man once described as the U.S.' top enemy in Iraq will be responsible for shaping Iraq's destiny.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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