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. Polls across the Arab, energy-rich nation opened at 7 a.m. local time and will close at 6 p.m.
It is the first national ballot after the Americans left in 2011, the election is being held amid tight security provided by hundreds of thousands troops and police. Iraq’s 22 million registered voters are electing a 328-seat parliament.
In central Baghdad, police and army manned checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart, while pickup trucks with machine-guns perched on top roamed the streets. Much of the city looked deserted without the normal traffic congestion that Baghdad is notorious for.
“I decided to go and vote early while it’s safe,” said Azhar Mohammed, who lost a brother last week in violence in the northern city of Mosul. “Crowds attract attacks,” said the 37-year-old woman in mourning black as she approached a polling station in the mainly Shiite Karadah district.
Not far from where Mohammed was, Essam Shukr broke into tears as he remembered a son killed in a suicide bombing in Karadah last month. “I hope this election takes us to the chores of safety,” he said.
A Shiite party led by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister of eight years, is expected to win the most seats in Wednesday’s election but is unlikely to win a majority.
Al-Maliki will have to cobble together a coalition if he is to retain his job for a third, four-year term, a tough task given the harsh criticism he has been under from his one-time Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies.
The Shiite 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 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 Al-Maliki. His moves in 2013 to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi.
Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back. At the same time, many Iraqis increasingly complain of government corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy.
The violence has continued right up to the day before the vote. On Tuesday, back-to-back bombs ripped through an outdoor market northeast of Baghdad, the deadliest in separate attacks that officials said killed 24 people. The largest election-related attack was last Friday in Baghdad, when a series of bombings killed at least 33 people at a campaign rally for a militant Shiite group, the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
A breakaway Al-Qaida group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack as well as a suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad on Monday that killed at least 25 Kurds.