BAGHDAD — The Shiite Muslim movement loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr may seem an unlikely standard-bearer for democracy in the new Iraq.
It owes fealty to a leader whose stature derives from his religious lineage. It boycotted Iraq's first democratic election. And its Mahdi Army militia was held responsible for much of the mayhem that reigned a few years back.
But on Friday, Sadr loyalists held Iraq's first primary election to choose candidates for January's crucial nationwide vote.
The exercise came in response to an instruction from Sadr, who has been living the life of a virtual recluse in the Iranian city of Qom since 2007. He is reported to be studying to become an ayatollah, and has vowed not to return to Iraq until the last of the American "occupiers" has left. Yet his influence over his followers remains intact.
At a polling station in the movement's stronghold of Sadr City, throngs of people, many of them noisily chanting the cleric's name, lined up to cast ballots for one of 329 candidates for slots on the pro-Sadr slate in Baghdad province.
"I voted because Sayed Muqtada Sadr ordered me to," said Khadamiya Jawad, 34, after writing her candidate's name on a ballot paper in a covered booth and dipping her finger in indelible ink. "And also because I want to choose my own representative."
Signs proclaiming "The Primary Election for the Sadrist Movement" hung on the walls alongside lists of the candidates' names and portraits of Sadr. A loudspeaker broadcast slogans -- "Yes, Yes to Righteousness. No, No to Dishonesty" -- intended to remind voters that the primary elevated the movement above other political parties, which select their candidates behind closed doors.
"For other political movements, a primary is only an idea, not a principle, because they are too concerned with their own interests," said Sheikh Salman Faraji, the cleric overseeing the poll. "But the Sadrist movement is not about politics, it is about people. The will of the people is above everything."
About 400 polling stations and more than 800 candidates across Iraq participated, and a central committee will vet the results and decide on a final list of candidates. The number of candidates to be chosen is not known yet, because Iraqi legislators still have not agreed on the details of the January elections.
But it is clear that the Sadr movement intends to embrace the upcoming national vote, after adopting a decidedly ambivalent attitude to elections in 2005 and in January.
The Sadr movement aims to increase its current share of 30 of parliament's 275 seats to become the largest bloc, which would give it the right to name the prime minister, said Hazem Araji, a senior official of the movement.
The Sadr supporters, however, are running in a coalition with another Shiite powerhouse, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which also probably will stake its own claim to the post of prime minister. That coalition will face tough competition from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has broken with the council to head his own slate.
Though Sadr still commands adulation from his immediate followers, it is unclear how far that support extends into the broader Shiite populace. In provincial elections in January, his slate won between 5% and 15% of the vote, trailing Maliki in every Shiite province.
At a voting station in a shrine in Karada, a middle-class Shiite neighborhood where support for Sadr is weak, there were far fewer voters and little evidence of the enthusiasm displayed in Sadr City. Many of those present said they had been encouraged to vote by the offer of a free lunch of chicken, rice and bananas.
One of the chief aims of the primary was to increase awareness of the national poll and to dispel some of the disillusionment with the democratic process that has set in among Iraqi voters in the last four years, said Hatem Bithani, an official who supervised voting in east Baghdad.
"Iraqis are exhausted with elections and many of them are not willing to vote," he said. "So Sayed Muqtada Sadr chose this idea to move the people, and change their thinking before the election."
The point was underlined in a written message, purportedly from the cleric, posted on the wall outside the polling stations exhorting his followers to vote.
"Put your hands together and raise your voices in order to prove to everyone that Iraq is the Iraq of the Sadrists," the message said.
Times staff writer Mohammed Arrawi contributed to this report.