Iraqis begin voting as violence grips country
Baghdad, April 30, 2014
Iraqis headed to the polls on Wednesday in their first national election since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki seeking a third term amid rising violence.
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 am (0400 GMT), with a vehicle curfew imposed on the streets of Baghdad. Voters will choose 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.
Maliki was among the first to cast a vote at a hotel next to the heavily fortified Green Zone enclave 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 pm (1500 GMT).
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 Levant (ISIL).
"Is ISIL and al Qaeda capable of reaching the target for (which) they were established ... bringing down Baghdad and the other provinces and destroying the holy shrines? ... I say no," Maliki said earlier this week.
"ISIL is over, but its pockets still exist and we will keep chasing them and the coming few days will witness major developments," he said.
Iraq's Sunni political leaders paint Maliki as an authoritarian ruler who wants to destroy their community. His main Sunni rival, parliamentary speaker Usama Al-Nujaifi, said Sunnis had suffered from "terrorism and militias" under Maliki.
"Our people haven't harvested the national partnership, only the rattle of weapons, the language of blood, the education of revenge, the sectarian inciting, the displaced people," Nujaifi told supporters recently.
He worried that a third term for Maliki would lead to "massacres committed against innocent people".
The period ahead will be a test of Iraq's democracy. It took nine months to seat a government after the last national election in 2010, a vote that took place with tens of thousands of US soldiers still in Iraq.
Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties are outspoken about their wish for Maliki to go, but he is still expected to win more votes than them. - Reuters