Cleric who bloodied US and pro-Iran fighter frontrunners in Iraq vote

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraqi political firebrands, nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr and pro-Iranian Hadi al-Ameri, are two former militia chieftains pitching themselves as outsiders ready to fight graft and boost services.

Both look set to play key roles in determining the next leader of their war-scarred nation after their rival political alliances appeared to surge at national polls.

Sadr, 44, comes from a long line of Shiite holy men, and is well known to Washington after his fighters battled US troops in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.

Sidelined for years since his Mahdi Army militia was officially dismantled, he has reinvented himself as an anti-corruption crusader -- linking up in an unlikely union with Iraq's communists.

Ameri, 63, heads the rival Conquest Alliance made up of former members of the mainly Shiite paramilitary units he led in the fight against the Islamic State group.

How the two men shape up as kingmakers is yet to be seen -- with bitter foes the US and Iran sparring for influence as international tensions spiral.

Sadr, viewed as a populist and nationalist, has hit out at both Washington and Tehran -- with his jubilant supporters chanting "Iran out" in videos circulated online.

In an eye-catching move the black-robed cleric visited Iran's fierce rival, Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, last year in a bid to bolster ties with Riyadh as it looks to get more involved in Iraq.

- 'Didn't happen by chance' -

Running counter is former transport minister Ameri, who at one stage fought for Iran against Iraq's ex-dictator Saddam Hussein in a war in the 1980s.

A self-described friend of key Iranian commanders, he has long enjoyed support from Tehran for his Badr organisation.

The Badr became the best trained fighting force in the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) that emerged to fight IS alongside Iraq's regular troops.

While he has lambasted Washington in the past, it remains to be seen how strongly Ameri could push for US forces who helped topple IS to now get out of Iraq.

US firepower ended up aiding his fighters and the battlefield entente might have softened his stance.

The victory over the jihadists -- announced five months ago -- came at a bloody price for the Hashed.

But it gave Ameri the prestige and platform to make a pitch to take the helm in the country.

Since their weapons fell silent after the defeat of IS, the group's resources have been turned to more constructive ends -- mending infrastructure and offering basic services.

After 15 violence-wracked years of chaos since the fall of Saddam both Sadr and Ameri have benefited from widespread discontent at an Iraqi elite seen as mired in graft and sectarianism.

While both are veterans well-known to Iraqis, their promise of change appeared to resonate with the 44.5 percent of voters who bothered to head to the polls.

"This didn't happen by chance, this came for the sake of proving the rejection of the policy of corruption and the corrupt," Jabra al-Tai, a candidate for Sadr's Marching towards Reform, told AFP.