BAGHDAD – Iraqi soldiers and policemen vote on Monday ahead of the country's first national election since US troops left with worsening sectarian ties and fears the country is slipping into all-out conflict.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, lambasted by critics for allegedly consolidating power and targeting minority groups, is bidding for a third term in Wednesday's polls with Iraqis frustrated over basic services, rampant corruption and high unemployment.
The month-long campaign has seen Baghdad and other cities plastered with posters and decked out in bunting, as candidates have taken to the streets, staged loud rallies and challenged each other in angry debates.
Attacks on candidates, election workers and political rallies have cast a shadow over the election, and parts of the country that have been out of government control for months will not see any ballots cast.
Many shops in central Baghdad have been boarded up and authorities have announced a week's public holidays to try to bolster security for the election. Iraqis living outside of the country began voting at overseas polling centres on Sunday.
Along with members of the security forces, hospital and prison staff will also cast their ballots on Monday ahead of wider polling on April 30.
Although voters have a long list of grievances, from poor electricity and sewerage services to pervasive graft and difficulties securing jobs, to say nothing of near-daily violence, the election has centred around Maliki and his efforts to retain power.
His opponents, who span the communal spectrum, accuse him of shoring up his power base, while minority Sunnis in particular say the Shiite premier discriminates against them.
Maliki contends that foreign interference is behind deteriorating security and complains that he has been saddled with a unity government of groups that snipe at him in public and block his legislative efforts.
But according to analysts and diplomats, with a fractious and divided opposition and no clear replacement, he remains the frontrunner in the first national election since 2010, and the first since US troops withdrew in December 2011.
No single party is likely to win an absolute majority, however, and as in previous elections, coalition talks are likely to take months. -- AFP