A firebrand cleric who led a militia which fought British and American troops in Iraq is on course to win the country’s elections, in what would be a surprise upset for Western-backed incumbent Haider al-Abadi.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance of reformed Shia militants and communists was ahead in eight of Iraq's 18 provinces and second in four others.
His Mahdi Army waged a brutal and costly insurgency against coalition troops during the 2006-2008 civil war and offered a reward for any British soldiers captured.
Mr Sadr has since disavowed violence against fellow Iraqis and in 2008 ordered his forces to become a humanitarian group.
Mr Sadr himself rebranded as a secular nationalist, campaigning against corruption and for reform, a message which seemed to resonate with Iraqis tired of entrenched sectarianism and graft.
He is one of few Shia leaders to have kept his distance from neighbouring Iran, which has tried to influence Iraq’s politics and extend its reach across the region.
Mr Sadr, 44, has sought to broaden his regional support. Last year, he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a major US regional ally that is staunchly opposed to Iran.
Crowds of mainly young people waved flags and pictures of Sadr in Sadr City, an impoverished quarter of Baghdad that is home to some 3 million people and is named after the cleric's late father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadq al-Sadr.
A ticket headed by Hadi al-Ameri, a former commander of Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) that fought Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), was in second place.
Videos of Sadr supporters celebrating in Baghdad show them chanting "Baghdad will be free, Iran out, out!"— Tamer El-Ghobashy (@TamerELG) May 13, 2018
Mr Ameri, an opponent of Saddam Hussein who spent years in exile in Tehran, had also made combating corruption a central plank of his platform.
The preliminary results dealt a shock to Prime Minister Mr Abadi, who had been tipped as the favourite and had considerable support cross-sectarian support, particularly in Sunni areas his army liberated from Isil.
The British-educated engineer appeared to be third overall and fifth in Baghdad, which holds the largest number of seats.
The US had backed Mr Abadi, a consensus figure who promised to keep American troops in the country as part of its stabilisation effort.
Who is Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric on course to take power in Iraq?
Any victory for Mr Sadr will make the continued presence of US and British soldiers, which currently number in the low thousands and hundreds respectively, an unlikely prospect.
While the expected results are not entirely good news for Washington, it will see some comfort that staunchly pro-Iran parties did not do better at a time when relations are worsening with Tehran.
"The United States government views Sadr as anti-American. Sadr, however, is a pragmatic and rational actor," said Muhanad Seloom, associate lecturer at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.
"Over the last 13 years, Sadr managed maintain calm relations with Iran and was able to negotiate peace with the US presence in Iraq," he told the Telegraph. "It is also important to remember that Sadr is part of Sairoon coalition which has other secularist parties not necessarily anti-American."
But the complex electoral arithmetic of the Iraqi system means that no party is likely to win more than half the 329 seats needed to form a majority.
There is expected to be weeks of horse-trading as the dominant blocs form a coalition and agree a new parliament and a new prime minister.
A senior member of Mr Sadr’s party on Monday hinted that they would not enter into a coalition with Mr Ameri’s Conquest party because of its strong sectarian allegiance.
However, it could look to make up the numbers with Mr Abadi's Nasr bloc.
Mr Sadr will not take up the position of premier as he did not run as a candidate, but he will be able to pick a man for the job. He has previously said he supported a second term for Mr Abadi and it could not be ruled out that any new coalition could choose him.
The results, and the record low turnout of 45 per cent, point to a population fatigued by the influence of outside countries.
“This is a win for Iraq,” said Ali Khadar, a student in Baghdad. “This is Iraq waking up to the problems it has been plagued by for years. Corruption is at the centre of all our issues, and this is a rejection of that.”
Mr Seloom added: "in a region where outcomes of elections are almost known in advance, Iraq’s elections surprising results is a positive sign of developing democracy."