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Iraqi women give the victory signs while showing their inked fingers after casting votes at a polling center in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. A key election for a new Iraqi parliament was underway on Wednesday amid a massive security operation as the country continued to slide deeper into sectarian violence more than two years after U.S. forces left the country. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Iraqis brave threat of violence to vote
First Published Apr 30 2014 08:06 pm • Last Updated Apr 30 2014 08:11 pm

BAGHDAD • Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and other violence to vote Wednesday in parliamentary elections amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.

Hundreds of thousands of troops and police fanned out to protect the first nationwide balloting since the 2011 U.S. pullout. Scattered attacks still took place north and west of Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding 16.

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Baghdad looked deserted, with police and soldiers manning checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns roaming the streets that were otherwise devoid of the usual traffic jams.

Stores were closed and many voters had to walk for kilometers (miles) to the polls after authorities banned civilian vehicles to prevent car bombs. Others demanded a lift from army or police checkpoints.

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 toward the brink of civil war.

The 63-year-old Shiite leader’s State of Law Party was widely expected to win the most seats in the 328-member parliament but fall short of a majority, according to analyst predictions. That would allow al-Maliki to keep his post only if he can cobble together a coalition — a task that took nine months after the last election in 2010.

"God willing, we will celebrate a successful election and defeat terrorism," al-Maliki said after casting his ballot in Baghdad. He was upbeat about how his party will fare.

"Our victory is certain, but we are talking about how big is that certain success," he said.

Even some of al-Maliki’s Shiite backers accuse him of trying to amass power for himself, but most in the majority sect see no alternative. Al-Maliki also has the support of neighboring powerhouse Iran, which aides have said will use its weight to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.

Another thorny issue is likely to be who gets to be the next president. The incumbent, ailing elderly statesman Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has served the maximum two terms. His departure from the scene will revive calls by Iraqi Arabs, Shiite and Sunnis alike, for an Arab president to replace him. That, in turn, will strain relations between Baghdad and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north, which are already tense over Baghdad’s perceived meddling in Kurdish affairs.

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Al-Maliki told reporters he would have no objection to forging an alliance with any other bloc, provided it denounced sectarianism and worked for Iraq’s unity. But the Kurds had already suggested they will not be part of a coalition led by him, while some of his one-time Shiite allies may want to enter an alliance with the Sunnis and Kurds to push al-Maliki out of contention.

Polls opened across the energy-rich nation at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT, midnight Tuesday EDT) and closed at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT, 11 a.m. EDT). There are 22 million eligible voters, choosing from more than 9,000 candidates. Turnout was estimated earlier in the day at 30 percent, according to Muqdad al-Shuraifi, a senior election commission member.

Authorities did not offer a timetable for releasing results, but they were expected to start trickling in to election officials in coming days. Results weren’t announced until about two weeks after the 2010 balloting.

Voters were searched multiple times before being allowed inside polling centers, and surrounding streets were 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 woman 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, shrouded in black.

Not far away, 72-year-old Essam Shukr broke 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."

In Baghdad’s mostly Shiite Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents, elite counterterrorism forces were deployed and helicopters hovered above the sprawling area. Double-decker buses ferried voters to polling centers.

"We want to see real change in this country and real security. We are not happy with the performance of the current government and parliament," said 18-year-old Zulfikar Majid, a first-time voter in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Habibiya neighborhood.

Another first-time voter, Umm Jaafar of the southern city of Basra, said she had boycotted past elections because the Americans were in Iraq.

"We hope that today’s election would lead to change the current government, which has let us down despite all the money it has," she said as she and two of her children, also first-time voters, came out of a polling center in the mainly Shiite city.

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