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An alliance backed by populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr took a surprise early lead as votes were counted in Iraq's election, a test of the country's efforts to recover from the long war with Islamic State as well as a gauge of the influence wielded by neighbouring Iran.

Iraq's Sairoon coalition, led by opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr, came in first in Saturday's parliamentary polls, while the pro-government Al-Fatih coalition, led by Hadi al-Amiri, came in second, according to unofficial results.

Seats in parliament will be allocated proportionately to coalitions once all votes are counted.

He was followed by Amiri with more than 1.2 million votes, translating into around 47 seats, and Abadi with more than one million votes and about 42 seats.

The alliance is beating Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been backed by the worldwide community.

While sectarianism may have dominated the Iraqi landscape in the past, the focus of most disenchanted Iraqis is on tackling widespread corruption, a faltering economy and the mammoth reconstruction effort after Daesh.

Abadi, a rare ally of both the United States and Iran, came in third in six provinces but ran fifth in Baghdad.

Saturday's balloting was the first since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State.

Instead of choosing Abadi's list voters apparently either opted to stay home - with turnout at a record low of 44.5 percent - or opt for candidates who portrayed themselves as anti-establishment. It is also possible for al-Sadr and al-Abadi to join forces which could result in al-Abadi being named prime minister again. This opens the doors for various other blocs with a significant number of seats to align with Abadi and seek significant concessions in the process.

In this election, many voters abandoned their traditional divisions and supported two new political movements groups that promised to tackle a pervasive everyday problem: corruption. Like the United States, Iran will now also have to recalibrate how to advance its interests in Iraq, where Sadr's independence has made him attractive to some of Iran's rivals in the Arab world. Iraq's many political factions mean a government may only be formed after drawn out negotiations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is shown campaigning in Kirkuk on April 28. "Iraq first, eradicate corruption, and a technocratic government". Authorities are seeking as much as $88 billion for postwar reconstruction.

Sadr's father, highly respected Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was murdered in 1999 for defying Saddam Hussein.

After the announcement that the Marching Towards Reform was ahead in Baghdad, supporters took the streets in the capital to celebrate a win.

Despite railing against Maliki - widely reviled for losing ground to IS and stirring sectarianism - Abadi failed to really distance himself.

The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to end the Iran Nuclear deal just days before the Iraqi elections would only stoke the fire. He received USA military support that was helped the victory of Iraqi security forces over the Sunni militant group, and gave free rein to Iran to back Shia militias fighting on the same side.