Iraqis risk violence to cast votes
Iraqi people are braving the threat of bombs and attacks to vote in key elections amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.
Hundreds of thousands of troops and police are guarding voting centres in the first nationwide balloting since the American troops pulled out in 2011.
Scattered attacks still took place north of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 16.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has held power for eight years, faces growing criticism over government corruption and persistent bloodshed as sectarian tensions threaten to push Iraq back towards civil war.
The 63-year-old Shiite leader's State of Law party is widely expected to win the most seats in the 328-member parliament but to fall short of a majority.
That would allow Mr al-Maliki to keep his post only if he can form a coalition, a task made more difficult given the divisions with former Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies.
Even some of Mr al-Maliki's Shiite backers denounce him as a would-be dictator, amassing power for himself, but most in the majority sect see no alternative.
Mr Al-Maliki also has the support of neighbouring powerhouse Iran, which aides have said will use its weight to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.
There are 22 million eligible voters, choosing from among some 9,000 candidates.
In central Baghdad, police and soldiers manned checkpoints roughly 500 metres apart, while pickup trucks with machine-guns on top roamed the streets. Much of the city looked deserted and most shops were closed.
Voters are being subjected to multiple searches before being allowed inside polling stations and surrounding streets are blocked by police trucks and barbed wire.
"I decided to go and vote early while it's safe. Crowds attract attacks," Azhar Mohammed said as she and her husband approached a polling station in Baghdad's mainly Shiite Karradah district. The 37-year-old said her brother - a soldier - was killed last week in the northern city of Mosul.
"There has been a big failure in the way the country has been run and I think it is time to elect new people," she said.
Not far away, 72-year-old Essam Shukr burst into tears as he remembered a son killed in a suicide bombing in Karradah last month.
"I hope this election takes us to the shores of safety," he said. "We want a better life for our sons and grandchildren who cannot even go to playgrounds or amusement parks because of the bad security situation. We want a better life for all Iraqis."
In Baghdad's mostly Shiite Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents, elite counter-terrorism forces were deployed and helicopters hovered above the sprawling area. Double-decker buses ferried voters to polling centres.
Authorities have also closed Iraq's airspace for the elections, and banned vehicles from the streets to reduce the threat of car bombings.
A series of high-profile attacks has killed dozens of people in the days leading up to the vote.
Today a roadside bomb also killed two women as they walked to a polling station in the small town of Dibis near Kirkuk. Another bomb in Dibis targeted an army patrol, wounding five soldiers, according to Sarhad Qadir, a senior police officer in the area.
Also in the north, a police officer jumped on a suicide bomber to protect people from the impact of the blast, which occurred near a polling center in Beiji. The officer was killed and 11 people were wounded, police officials said.
Police also shot and killed a would-be suicide bomber before he could blow himself up near a polling centre in the northern city of Mosul.
Soldiers and police cast ballots on Monday to enable them to provide security for the rest of voters today. Iraqis living in about 20 other countries voted on Sunday and Monday.
Initial and partial results from the vote are expected to start trickling out next week, but it is unclear when the final outcome will be announced.
Mr Al-Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq's sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other's communities.
Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while Mr al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen - and by 2008, the violence had eased.
But the Sunni-Shiite violence returned, stoked in part by Mr al-Maliki's moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his government. Militants took over the city of Fallujah in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back and voting was not taking place in parts of the vast province bordering Jordan and Syria.
At the same time, many Iraqis increasingly complain of government corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy after years of war following the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Last year, the death toll in Iraq climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed in 2006 and 2007. The UN says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and about 2,000 people were killed in the first three months of this year alone.