Iraq carried out its first election since the U.S. military withdrawal without major bloodshed Saturday in a major test for Iraqi security forces as they face a reviving al-Qaida insurgency. But delayed elections in two provinces wracked by anti-government protests and complaints about missing names on voter rolls overshadowed the vote.
The results will be a key measure of support for the country's vying political coalitions and could boost the victors' chances heading into next year's parliamentary elections. Thousands of candidates from 50 electoral blocs were vying for 378 seats on provincial councils, which hold sway over public works projects and other decisions at the local level.
Officials ratcheted up security to thwart insurgent attempts to disrupt the vote. Nearly all cars were ordered off the roads in major cities, leaving streets eerily empty and giving children a chance to play soccer in the middle of highways.
Scattered violence — mainly mortar shells and small bombs — struck near polling places. But they resulted in no fatalities — a departure from a wave of bloodshed earlier in the week. Six people were reported wounded Saturday.
As in past elections, voters dipped their fingers in purple ink after casting their ballots to prevent repeat voting.
Among them was Oday Mohammed, a businessman who brought his mother, wife and children along with him to vote for a candidate from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc. He said he believes both candidates and voters are growing more experienced with the democratic process following the 2003 ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein.
"Not all politicians are corrupt. There are some good people," he said at a polling center in the mainly Shiite district of Kazimiyah.
The vote comes at a time of rising tensions between Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite majority that has dominated politics since the U.S.-led invasion a decade ago.
In a reflection of those sectarian strains, many voters said they were encouraged to participate by religious leaders.
"I don't have any hope that the situation will improve, but I had to take part because our clerics asked us to so we don't lose out like in in the past," said Anwar al-Obaidi, a 60-year old Sunni barber in Baghdad.
Muqdad al-Shuraifi, a member of the electoral commission, said after polls closed that a preliminary count showed 51 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. That is the same turnout as during the last provincial elections in 2009.
Full election results were not expected for several days.
Many Iraqis are frustrated with the lack of progress despite several earlier regional and national elections, which were protected with help from the U.S. Several said they saw no point in casting ballots.
"All the politicians and provincial officials, whether Sunni or Shiite, are nothing but thieves and liars," said Ali Farhan, a 35-year-old taxi driver in eastern Baghdad, in explaining his choice not to vote.
Militants stepped up attacks ahead of the vote. A wave of car bombings and other attacks Monday killed at least 55 people and wounded more than 200. Another bombing at a packed cafe late Thursday that left 32 dead. And at least 14 candidates were assassinated in recent weeks.
Several would-be voters in Baghdad's mainly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah could not find their names on voting rolls at several polling centers, so they went home without casting ballots.
"I'm disappointed. We're missing the chance to make a change," lawyer Raed Najm told The Associated Press after failing to find his name at four separate polling stations.
Jana Hybaskova, the European Union envoy to Iraq, described similar voter registration problems at polling sites in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area.
Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Khaldi from the opposition Iraqiya bloc said he received complaints from voters in Baghdad and in Diyala province about missing names on voting rolls as well.
He also accused Shiite militiamen of burning ballot boxes in Diyala, which is home to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Al-Shuraifi, the electoral official, confirmed that ballot boxes were destroyed in the province, but he blamed the act on angry voters who could not find their names on voting lists.
Voting took place at more than 5,300 polling centers for members of provincial councils who will serve in 12 of Iraq's 18 governorates.
Officials last month unexpectedly delayed voting in two largely Sunni provinces, citing security concerns. The provinces, Anbar and Ninevah, have witnessed four months of large anti-government protests, raising questions about the motives behind the delay.
The U.S. Embassy praised Iraqis for going to the polls in what it called a strong rejection of violent extremists. At the same time, it urged authorities in Baghdad to revisit the decision to delay the vote in the two Sunni provinces and to schedule voting there soon.
"Security concerns should not prevent all Iraqi citizens from expressing themselves democratically at the ballot box," the Embassy said in a statement.
Iraq's largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, which comprises three provinces, will hold its own local elections in September. No vote is scheduled in the ethnically disputed province of Kirkuk, which has not had a chance to elect local officials since 2005 because residents cannot agree on a power-sharing formula there.
As in the 2010 national elections, al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition is vying against the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc. But Iraqiya is now fragmented with some prominent Sunni figures fielding their own slates of candidates.
State of Law also faces a challenge from Shiite rivals the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A strong showing by them could undermine support for al-Maliki's bloc heading into next year's parliamentary elections.
Governorate councils choose provincial governors and have the right under Iraq's constitution to call for a referendum to organize themselves into a federal region — a move that could give them considerable autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. They also have some say over regional security matters and the ability to negotiate local business deals and allocate government funds.
Some 13.8 million voters were eligible to participate in the provinces taking part in Saturday's vote.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, and Nabil al-Jurani in Basra contributed reporting.
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