Iraqis vote in landmark elections
Iraqis vote in landmark elections
Iraqis are electing new provincial councils in the first nationwide vote in four years, with the Sunni minority expected to turn out in strength.
After a slow start, correspondents said voting was brisk, including among Sunni Muslims, who largely boycotted the last elections.
The vote is seen as a test of Iraq"s stability ahead of a general election due later this year.
Security is tight and thousands of observers are monitoring the polls.
Up to 15 million Iraqis are eligible to cast votes.
"This is a great chance for us, a great day, to be able to vote freely without any pressure or interference," a Baghdad voter identified as Hamid told Reuters news agency.
The BBC"s Jim Muir in Baghdad said voters had to pass through stringent security checks to reach the polling stations, which were mostly set up in schools.
As voting got underway, several mortar rounds landed near polling stations in Tikrit, hometown of late ruler Saddam Hussein, but no casualties were reported.
Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the vote, as well as thousands of local observers from the various political parties.
At least eight of the 14,000 candidates have been killed in the run up to the election.
Three of the candidates - all Sunni Muslims - were killed on Thursday, in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province.
While the recent level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, Iraq"s international borders have been shut, traffic bans are in place across Baghdad and major cities, and curfews have been introduced.
Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have also been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year, according to the Associated Press.
Iraqi and US military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.
After a slow start to voting, the pace picked up and there was a holiday atmosphere among voters walking to the polling stations, our correspondent says.
Setting the stage
The turnout is expected to be strong even in Sunni areas.
The head of the Iraqi electoral commission in Anbar province - a centre of the Sunni resistance to the US occupation - said he was expecting a 60% turnout.
Fewer than 2% voted in the 2005 election, with the result that Shia and Kurdish parties took control of parliament.
Some Sunnis, like Khaled al-Azemi, said the boycott last time had been a mistake.
"We lost a lot because we didn"t vote and we saw the result - sectarian violence" he told the BBC.
"That"s why we want to vote now to avoid the mistakes of the past."
The drawing of alienated Sunnis back into the political arena is one of the big changes these elections will crystallise, the BBC"s Jim Muir reports from Baghdad.
Jim Muir takes a look inside an Iraqi polling station
On the Shia side, the results will also be closely watched amid signs that many voters intend to turn away from the big religious factions and towards nationalist or secular ones.
If they pass off relatively peacefully, these elections will set the stage for general polls at the end of the year and for further coalition troop withdrawals, our correspondent says.
The election is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
"This is a victory for all the Iraqis," he said after casting his vote in Baghdad"s highly-protected Green Zone. "I call on all my Iraqi brothers and sisters to vote."
Saturday"s elections are being held in 14 of the country"s 18 provinces, with more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats.
There is no vote in the three provinces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of the north and the ballot has been postponed in oil-rich Kirkuk province.
Iraq"s provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration and oversee finance and reconstruction projects.