Iraq provincial elections: Officials cast ballots inside heavily fortified Green Zone
Iraqis voted on Saturday in the country's first polls since US troops departed, a key test of its stability in the face of a spike in attacks that has claimed more than 100 lives.
But the credibility of the provincial elections has come into question, with attacks on candidates leaving 14 dead and a third of Iraq's provinces -- all of them mainly Sunni Arab or Kurdish -- not even voting due to security concerns and political disputes.
Iraqi state television showed government officials, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, casting their ballots at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
Every Iraqi who votes "is saying to the enemies of the political process that we are not going back," Maliki said on state television after casting his ballot.
"I say to all those who are afraid for the future of Iraq and afraid of a return of violence and dictatorship that we will fight by casting ballots," Maliki said.
The elections for provincial councils, responsible for naming governors who lead local reconstruction, administration and finances, are seen as a key gauge of parties' popularity ahead of general elections next year.
"Security is the most important problem that all of them should be working for -- without this, life would be so difficult," university student Abdulsahib Ali Abdulsahib, 22, said at a polling station in central Baghdad after voting began at about 7:00 am (0400 GMT).
Voters were searched twice before being allowed to enter, and security forces had a heavy presence in the area. Only pre-approved vehicles were allowed on the streets, largely deserted except for police and soldiers.
Security measures were tough elsewhere in the country, but were tightest in Baghdad.
Despite the restrictions, militants were still able to carry out attacks, though casualties were limited.
Overall, nine mortar rounds, one roadside bombing and three stun grenades, all outside Baghdad, left a civilian and a policeman wounded, officials said.
The elections, which come a decade after US-led forces ousted now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, are the first since parliamentary polls in March 2010 and also the first since US troops withdrew in December 2011.
An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested.
"Elections do not solve every problem in Iraq, but no problem can be solved without elections," UN special envoy Martin Kobler told reporters after touring a polling station in central Baghdad.
Kobler also appealed for Iraqis to "turn out more than now", while visiting the converted school where journalists far outnumbered voters.
The polls are seen as a gauge of Maliki's popularity ahead of a general election next year, but major issues affecting voters such as poor public services and rampant corruption have largely been ignored during the campaign.
The lead-up to the vote was blighted by a rise in violence that left more than 100 people dead in the past week and 14 election candidates killed since campaigning began.
Six of Iraq's 18 provinces are not participating -- two because authorities say security cannot be ensured, and four because of various political disagreements.
Iraqi forces were responsible for security on polling day, the first time they have been in charge without support from American or other international forces during elections since Saddam was toppled.
While violence in Iraq has fallen significantly since the height of its sectarian war, it still faces challenges, mainly from Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda who launch attacks in a bid to undermine confidence in the government.