Amid restrictions on civilian travel and heightened security across their country, Iraqis began voting Wednesday in parliamentary elections that have experienced a handful of deadly attacks, but fewer than many braced for in a country that has seen violence soar in recent months.
The elections, which are expected to result in a period of difficult coalition building as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeks a third term in office, are seen as the biggest test the country’s often underequipped security forces have faced. But even as many fear the country could fall into civil war, millions were expected to turn out in a vote seen as a referendum on Maliki’s rule.
At a polling station at al-Masarra school in Baghdad, Rekan Ahmad was defiant in the face of the threats. "We already live in the worst place in the world," the 44-year-old told Al Jazeera. "What can scare us today?"
Attacks have so far been few. A roadside bomb exploded near a polling station in the city of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, killing two women on their way to vote, police said. In the city of Ramadi, a man wearing a suicide vest tried to enter a polling station and was shot dead, police said, but not before five civilians and two policemen were injured in the attack.
In Mosul, northwest of Baghdad, three armed men and a suicide bomber were killed as they tried to enter polling stations in two separate attacks.
The streets of Baghdad were almost clear of vehicles because of travel restrictions. Large groups of soldiers manned checkpoints under a searing sun, checking identification cards and searching some of the few vehicles on the move.
The incumbent prime minister, Maliki, voted in central Baghdad on Wednesday morning. "We are voting for the future of our children," he said after casting his ballot.
"Terrorists were challenging us, and now we challenge them. I call upon all Iraqis ... to cast their votes in a brave manner. Because that is a big blow in the face of terrorism."
Violence this year has risen to levels not seen since 2006 and 2007, a period when tens of thousands died in tit-for-tat sectarian bloodletting and the country almost fell into all-out civil war. Nearly 1,700 civilians were killed in the first three months of this year, according to figures from the United Nations.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al-Qaeda offshoot, launched a triple suicide assault on an election rally last week, killing 37 people and wounding more than 80, in an attack that underlined the difficulty of protecting voters. ISIL, which wants to establish a Sunni Muslim caliphate, has threatened Sunni Iraqis with death if they vote.
Maliki and his Shia rivals both sought to present themselves as best suited for tackling the current fight for Anbar province's two main cities, Ramadi and Fallujah, which have been torn apart by an ISIL insurgency.
Analysts and diplomats say that the 63-year-old Maliki has a good chance of being returned to power but that he faces a difficult fight. Though he has no clear direct challenger for the top post, a wide mix of parties — Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and secular — are lined up against his Shia Dawa group.
A coalition government is again a certainty, given the fractured nature of Iraq's politics and its proportional-representation electoral system. After the 2010 elections and an eight-month negotiation period, Maliki formed a coalition government that was backed by Sunni and Kurdish groups. But he has fallen out with some cross-sectarian colleagues, meaning a new coalition would likely be more Shia-dominated than before.
Iraq's Sunni political leaders paint Maliki as an authoritarian ruler who wants to destroy their community. His main Sunni rival, parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, vowed after voting that he would never back a third term for Maliki.
"We have set red lines. We will not ally with the current prime minister in any case," Nujaifi told reporters.
There are palpable fears that a Maliki victory could exacerbate the already rising sectarianism in Iraq, given his crackdown on the Sunni Muslim insurgency in Anbar and the widely held view that Maliki has sought to aggravate cleavages between Sunnis and Shias, who are the majority in Iraq, in his bid to consolidate power.
Zaineb Al-Assam, a senior analyst with IHS Country Risk, said a Maliki victory that was not coupled with considerable concessions to Sunni leaders and tribes would in all likelihood embolden the insurgency and fuel wider Sunni discontent with the government.
"Although Maliki has attempted to paint the insurgency as almost exclusively perpetrated by foreign (particularly Saudi) and Baathist Al-Qaeda militants, Sunni discontent with the government's perceived sectarian policies is the underlying driver of insurgent violence," she said.
Barry Malone and Michael Pizzi contributed reporting, with wire services.