Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in last month’s parliamentary elections, has announced an alliance with an Iran-backed coalition ahead of talks to form a new government.

The move, announced by Mr al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri of the Fatah coalition in the southern Shia city of Najaf, came largely as a surprise as Mr al-Sadr has been touting himself as a nationalist leader who opposes Iranian influence.

The new alliance controls 101 seats, far short of the 165 required for a majority.

At a news conference, both leaders underlined that their alliance is aimed at expediting the formation of a new government and they called on others to join them.

Mr al-Sadr said: “We had a very positive meeting in order to end the suffering of the country and the people.

Workers salvage ballot boxesIraqi electoral officials work to salvage ballot boxes (AP)

“Our new alliance is a nationalist one and within the national frames.”

In the years following the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Mr al-Sadr led militiamen who fought American troops in Iraq. Then they were backed by Iran, but in recent years the cleric presented himself as a nationalist leader opposed to Iranian influence and waging a public campaign against corruption.

His Sa’eroun alliance, which also includes the Communist Party and secular candidates, won 54 seats, followed by Fatah, a coalition of Shia paramilitaries who fought Islamic State in past years, with 47 seats. Prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory alliance took 42 seats.

Iraq’s May 12 elections, the fourth since the 2003 US-led invasion, have been marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities.

Iraqi security forcesSecurity forces arrive to assist firefighters (AP)

It saw the lowest turnout in 15 years due to widespread anger at the country’s dysfunctional political class.

Last week, Mr al-Abadi announced that a commission set up by the government to look into alleged irregularities in the vote found “unprecedented” violations and “widespread manipulation”, and faulted election authorities for “not taking the needed measures or taking wrong ones”. It recommended a recount for 5% of the vote.

Hours later, MPs voted on annulling results of ballots from abroad and camps for displaced people in four Sunni-dominated provinces, and called for a manual recount of all ballots.

A few days later, a fire ripped through a Baghdad storage site for ballot boxes, prompting calls to re-run the election as the country’s top judicial authority took over the Independent Elections Commission to prepare for the manual recount.

During his weekly press conference, Mr al-Abadi objected to a re-run of the elections, a position echoed by Mr al-Sadr and Mr al-Amiri.