BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Supporters of a fiery anti-U.S. cleric may have staged a comeback in Iraq's parliamentary election in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, once a bastion of Shi'ite militants and now a bellwether of Shi'ite political sentiment.
Moqtada al-Sadr, who galvanized Iraqi Shi'ites against the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion but has faded from the political scene since he began religious studies in Iran several years ago, broke a long silence ahead of Sunday's national vote.
He urged followers to vote in the election, an important step for Iraq as it struggles to solidify its democracy and security ahead of a planned U.S. withdrawal by end 2011.
Early indicators show the strategy may have paid off in Sadr City, home to more than 2 million people, for the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the large Shi'ite coalition Sadr has joined.
Official preliminary results are not due for a day or two, but informal tallies compiled by Reuters from 12 of the 60 Sadr City voting centres showed the INA in first place, slightly ahead of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.
That is worrying news for Maliki, who sought to repeat his strong performance in a January 2009 provincial election, when he unexpectedly captured the support of voters in Sadr City, allowing his allies to win the local vote in the Iraqi capital.
"I voted for the Sadrists because our leader has pointed to these candidates and told us to vote," said Riyadh Mohammed, a day laborer in Sadr City.
The Sadrist campaign this year was much better organized than for last year's provincial election. The movement also held a relatively open contest to pick its candidates.
Sadr, the scion of a revered clerical family who many poor Shi'ites see as their most obvious voice, held a rare news conference in Tehran on Saturday and urged Iraqis to vote to help pave the way for the "liberation" of Iraq from U.S. forces.
Under a security pact signed by the Bush administration, all U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has promised to halve the current force in August, ending combat operations and bringing the U.S. force to just 50,000.
"The Sadrist vision at the moment is that taking part in the political process is a way to get rid of the occupier," said student and voter Hussein Abbas, referring to U.S. forces.
MALIKI STILL POPULAR
Maliki, who has adopted a nationalist tone despite his Islamist roots, has otherwise appeared to have done well in other key Shi'ite provinces, such as the oil city Basra, the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, home to Shi'ite shrines.
Picked as a compromise candidate for prime minister in 2006, Maliki has become an assertive leader, and violence in Iraq has fallen sharply under his watch in the last two years.
His strong showing among Sadr supporters in 2009 was all the more surprising because he had ordered a major assault on Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters in Baghdad and other areas the year before.
Analysts say that a main motive for the Sadrists to join the INA -- lead by one-time bitter rival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- was to oust Maliki or at least diminish his power.
Winning the most votes in Sadr City may not necessarily guarantee that the INA comes first in Baghdad, which will get 68 seats in the next 325-seat parliament. Had Maliki triumphed there it might have indicated such a trend for him, though.
Those who voted for Maliki cited security as a motive.
"Before, whoever went out into the street was killed, and there were bodies everywhere. We voted for Maliki because he brought security," said Sadr City shop owner Abu Wissam.
Overall turnout for Sunday's vote was 62 percent, higher than the provincial ballot, despite attempts by Sunni Islamist insurgents to disrupt the vote with attacks that killed 38.