The May 12 election, the fourth since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, will be dominated by the same leaders and factions that emerged 15 years ago.

Electoral campaign posters are seen on May 8, 2018 in the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk. Iraqi goes to the poll on May 12.
Electoral campaign posters are seen on May 8, 2018 in the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk. Iraqi goes to the poll on May 12. (AP)

Iraqis head to the polls this weekend for the first time since the government declared victory against Daesh, in national elections that could tilt the balance of power between the United States and Iran.

The May 12 election, the fourth since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, will be dominated by the same leaders and factions that emerged 15 years ago. But the atrocities committed by Daesh against fellow Sunnis, the hard-fought national campaign against the terrorist group and new rifts among the dominant Shia blocs seem to have eased the sectarian tensions that marked past votes.

TRT World's Ash Gallagher reports from Baghdad.

The main fault-line is between Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, who has deftly balanced both Iranian and American influence, and other Shia politicians seen as closer to Iran. The vote is being held amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, as President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, and Israel and Gulf countries express growing concern about Iran's regional ambitions.

Iraqis, meanwhile, expect little from what is sure to be another fractious coalition government. Fifteen years after the US invasion, the country still suffers from widespread power outages and poor public services, and low oil prices have further eviscerated the economy. In Sunni-majority areas, where the war against Daesh destroyed vital infrastructure and countless homes, the challenges are even greater.

The contenders

Nearly 7,000 candidates are vying for 329 parliament seats. No single alliance appears capable of winning a majority, so the eventual government will be formed after horse-trading that could drag on for months. After the elections in 2010, it took eight months to form a new government.

The candidates leading the most powerful alliances are Abadi, former prime minister Nuri al Maliki and Hadi al Amiri, a former minister of transport who also led paramilitary fighters against Daesh.

Abadi, who assumed office shortly after Daesh swept across much of northern and western Iraq, presided over the campaign that eventually drove the group from virtually all the territory it once controlled. He's seen as an urbane technocrat who has maintained good relations with Washington and Tehran. He also appears best placed to reach beyond the country's Shia majority and court Sunni votes, which could provide a margin of victory in a close-fought race.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi greets his supporters during an election campaign rally in Najaf, Iraq May 3, 2018.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi greets his supporters during an election campaign rally in Najaf, Iraq May 3, 2018. (Reuters)

Maliki, who governed Iraq for eight years, remains a powerful figure despite having stepped aside in disgrace when the military crumbled in the face of Daesh. His sectarian rule was widely seen as having fuelled the rise of the terrorist group.

A campaign poster of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki is seen in the street ahead of the parliamentary election, in Baghdad, Iraq, May 1, 2018.
A campaign poster of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki is seen in the street ahead of the parliamentary election, in Baghdad, Iraq, May 1, 2018. (Reuters)

Amiri was a commander in the Popular Mobilisation Units, the state-sanctioned and mostly Shia militias who helped roll back Daesh. Both have close ties to Iran.

Hadi al Amiri leader of the Badr Organisation, attends an election campaign rally, along with his Al Fatih bloc supporters, in Kirkuk, Iraq May 2, 2018.
Hadi al Amiri leader of the Badr Organisation, attends an election campaign rally, along with his Al Fatih bloc supporters, in Kirkuk, Iraq May 2, 2018. (Reuters)

As with previous elections, Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who also commands a state-sanctioned militia, is expected to translate his popular following into enough votes to make him a key player during government formation negotiations. His fighters once battled American troops, and he remains opposed to any US presence in Iraq. But he's also seen as a nationalist leader who has at times clashed with Iran, and who has sought to improve ties with Iraq's US-allied Gulf neighbours.

Iraq's complicated coalition politics also lend themselves to dark horses – both Abadi and Maliki were virtually unknown before they assumed office.

Source: AP