BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Supporters of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stood in long lines on Friday to vote their choice for prime minister of Iraq in a two-day referendum that carried no government sanction or legal weight.
The unusual plebiscite organized by Sadr's political movement, which won about 40 seats in a March 7 parliamentary election and stands to play a kingmaker role in the next government, was intended to determine the public favorite for prime minister after squabbling among election winners.
The ballot carried five names including current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his top election rival, former prime minister Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition edged Maliki's State of Law bloc 91 seats to 89 in the election.
Neither won enough for a majority in the 325-seat parliament and the tight race foretold weeks or months of potentially divisive negotiations to form a new government.
"According to political developments, a mistake might occur in choosing the next prime minister, and for that I think it is in the (national) interest to assign it directly to the people," Sadr, who is living and studying in Shi'ite neighbor Iran, said in a statement read to his followers before Friday prayers.
Sadr's political movement announced the vote just two days ago and although all Iraqis were invited, it was unclear how widely the ballots were available beyond Sadrist strongholds. Encircled by Iraqi soldiers in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum where Sadr's support is probably strongest, worshipers lined up at a chaotic tent at the movement's office. They scrambled to cast votes before the call to prayer, dictating their choices to party poll workers who wrote the votes on ballots.
TWO DAYS OF VOTING
The forms carried the names of five candidates; Maliki, Allawi, vice president Adel Abdul-Mehdi, former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Jaafar Mohammed al-Sadr, a Sadr relative, plus a write-in space for a candidate of the voter's choice.
"This is a successful process because it is the people's choice. He who wins will be adopted by us," said retiree Ghazi Hiawi al-Bidhani, 57.
Jasim Ali, 42, a government employee, said the vote would prevent sectarian issues from interfering with the choice for prime minister.
"I do what Moqtada al-Sadr asks us to do," he said. "Allawi and Maliki didn't provide any services to the people. We want a person who serves the people."
The voting was scheduled to last through Saturday.
Sadrists ran as part of the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi'ite coalition that placed third with 70 seats. An alliance of two powerful Kurdish parties finished fourth with 43 seats.
INA officials had said they were negotiating an alliance with Maliki's State of Law bloc. A combination of the two would have 159 seats, nearly enough to form a majority in parliament.
But the Sadrists object to a second term for Maliki, who sent government troops against Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
At prayers in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala, Ahmed al-Safi, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, said no party could "take everything and give nothing."
"The four winning lists need each other," he said.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, writing by Jim Loney)