Iraq's western province of Anbar is torn by fighting as Sunni
Muslim militants battle the Iraqi military. Its economy is
struggling and Maliki faces criticism that he is aggravating
sectarian splits and trying to consolidate power.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT), with a vehicle curfew in Baghdad.
Voters are choosing from among 9,012 candidates and the
parliamentary election will effectively serve as a referendum on
Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim who has governed for eight years.
The elections went off in central Iraq and the south with few
hitches by mid-day, while turnout was low in Sunni regions, where
residents are often afraid of the security forces and al Qaeda
The disparities were a reminder of the deep frictions now between
the country's Shi'ite majority and Sunnis.
Baghdad was quiet through late morning. The roads were dotted with
military checkpoints and people walked on foot to the polling
Humvees flanked the voting centers. Razor wire sealed off the area
as people passed multiple checkpoints to go inside to vote. Several
dozen army and police swarmed the street. The seeming calm was a
contrast to the 2010 elections, when the capital was ripped by
explosions, many of them sound bombs.
Maliki was among the first to vote in Baghdad at a hotel next to the
fortified Green Zone where the government is based. He urged people
to follow suit despite security threats.
"I call upon the Iraqi people to head in large numbers to the ballot
boxes to send a message of deterrence and a slap to the face of
terrorism," Maliki told reporters.
Political analysts say no party is likely to win a majority in the
328-seat parliament. Forming a government may be hard even if
Maliki's State of Law alliance wins the most seats as expected,
although he was confident of another victory.
"Definitely our expectations are high," he said. "Our victory is
confirmed but we are still talking about how big this victory will
be," Maliki said. Polls close at 6 p.m.
Maliki faces challenges from Shi'ite and Sunni rivals and has
portrayed himself as his majority Shi'ite community's defender
against the Sunni, al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the
He and his Shi'ite opponents both sought to present themselves as
best suited for tackling the current fight for Anbar's two main
cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Iraq's Sunni political leaders paint Maliki as an authoritarian
ruler who wants to destroy their community. His main Sunni rival,
parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, vowed after voting he would
never back a third term for Maliki.
"We have set red lines. We will not ally with the current prime
minister in any case," Nujaifi told reporters. The parliament
speaker had recently said Sunnis suffered from "terrorism and
militias" under Maliki.
The mood among voters underscored division over who should guide the
country in this uncertain and turbulent period. Many voters in
Baghdad's prosperous and mainly Shi'ite Karrada district expressed
high hopes for Maliki.
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"Maliki can defeat terrorism because ... he has the great asset of
the people's support. He has the experience and knowledge," said
Mahmoud Sadiq al Rubaie, a laborer.
In other places, such as the Shi'ite slum Sadr City, more people
spoke with disdain about the incumbent. "We voted according to our
sect and this sectarianism will ruin Iraq," said Abu Sajjad, a taxi
driver. "If Maliki will be reelected, Iraq will be destroyed and
things will get worse."
TENSE SUNNI REGIONS
In Sunni parts of the country turnout seemed low in the early part
of the day, as the population in Salahuddin province, north of
Baghdad, and Diyala to the east of the capital experienced violent
incidents. ISIL, whose activities stretch from Iraq to Syria, has
threatened to kill anyone who votes and is intent in exercising
control over the Sunnis.
Twelve people were killed in Sunni parts of the country in
The most troubled province for elections remains Anbar. Iraqi forces
are locked in a four-month fight for the cities of Ramadi and
Fallujah. Troops surround Fallujah and are waging street battles in
In Ramadi, people only started venturing to the polls late in the
morning. Snipers were perched on the rooftops of schools used as
voting centers. Army and police patrolled the streets.
The war in Anbar has displaced an estimated 420,000 people. The
Iraqi electoral commission acknowledges it can only hold the
election in 70 percent of Anbar, not counting Fallujah.
Sunnis displaced from their homes but still living in Ramadi had to
walk across the conflict-ravaged town to polling centers designated
for them, according to a Reuters correspondent.
Already, a prominent senior Sunni cleric Sheikh Abdul Malik
al-Saadi, originally from Anbar, called for people not to vote after
what he said was evidence of "violations, forgery, and intimidating
voters" in favor of "one party" on Monday when soldiers cast their
Among Kurds in the semi-autonomous north, voters saw the election as
a chance to send a message to Baghdad that they will defend their
rights. The two sides are locked in a dispute over who has the right
to export Kurdish oil and what should be the Kurdish share of the
(Additional reporting by Isra' al-Rube'ii, Raheem Salman, Isabel
Cole in Sulaimaniyah, Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit, Ali al-Mashadani in
Ramadi, Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, and Ali Sultan in Baquba; editing
by Cynthia Osterman and Paul Tait)
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