BAGHDAD — Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and other violence to vote Wednesday in parliamentary elections amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.
Hundreds of thousands of troops and police fanned out to protect the first nationwide balloting since the 2011 U.S. pullout. Scattered attacks still took place north and west of Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding 16.
Baghdad looked deserted, with police and soldiers manning checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns roaming the streets that were otherwise devoid of the usual traffic jams.
Stores were closed and many voters had to walk for kilometers (miles) to the polls after authorities banned civilian vehicles to prevent car bombs. Others demanded a lift from army or police checkpoints.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has held power for eight years, faces growing criticism over government corruption and persistent bloodshed as sectarian tensions threaten to push Iraq back toward the brink of civil war.
The 63-year-old Shiite leader's State of Law Party was widely expected to win the most seats in the 328-member parliament but fall short of a majority, according to analyst predictions. That would allow al-Maliki to keep his post only if he can cobble together a coalition — a task that took nine months after the last election in 2010.
"God willing, we will celebrate a successful election and defeat terrorism," al-Maliki said after casting his ballot in Baghdad. He was upbeat about how his party will fare.
"Our victory is certain, but we are talking about how big is that certain success," he said.
Even some of al-Maliki's Shiite backers accuse him of trying to amass power for himself, but most in the majority sect see no alternative. Al-Maliki also has the support of neighboring powerhouse Iran, which aides have said will use its weight to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.
Another thorny issue is likely to be who gets to be the next president. The incumbent, ailing elderly statesman Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has served the maximum two terms. His departure from the scene will revive calls by Iraqi Arabs, Shiite and Sunnis alike, for an Arab president to replace him. That, in turn, will strain relations between Baghdad and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north, which are already tense over Baghdad's perceived meddling in Kurdish affairs.
Al-Maliki told reporters he would have no objection to forging an alliance with any other bloc, provided it denounced sectarianism and worked for Iraq's unity. But the Kurds had already suggested they will not be part of a coalition led by him, while some of his one-time Shiite allies may want to enter an alliance with the Sunnis and Kurds to push al-Maliki out of contention.
Polls opened across the energy-rich nation at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT, midnight Tuesday EDT) and closed at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT, 11 a.m. EDT). There are 22 million eligible voters, choosing from more than 9,000 candidates. Turnout was estimated earlier in the day at 30 percent, according to Muqdad al-Shuraifi, a senior election commission member.
Authorities did not offer a timetable for releasing results, but they were expected to start trickling in to election officials in coming days. Results weren't announced until about two weeks after the 2010 balloting.
Voters were searched multiple times before being allowed inside polling centers, and surrounding streets were blocked by police trucks and barbed wire.
"I decided to go and vote early while it's safe. Crowds attract attacks," Azhar Mohammed said as she and her husband approached a polling station in Baghdad's mainly Shiite Karradah district. The 37-year-old woman said her brother — a soldier — was killed last week in the northern city of Mosul.
"There has been a big failure in the way the country has been run and I think it is time to elect new people," she said, shrouded in black.
Not far away, 72-year-old Essam Shukr broke into tears as he remembered a son killed in a suicide bombing in Karradah last month. "I hope this election takes us to the shores of safety," he said. "We want a better life for our sons and grandchildren who cannot even go to playgrounds or amusement parks because of the bad security situation."
In Baghdad's mostly Shiite Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents, elite counterterrorism forces were deployed and helicopters hovered above the sprawling area. Double-decker buses ferried voters to polling centers.
"We want to see real change in this country and real security. We are not happy with the performance of the current government and parliament," said 18-year-old Zulfikar Majid, a first-time voter in Baghdad's mainly Shiite Habibiya neighborhood.
Another first-time voter, Umm Jaafar of the southern city of Basra, said she had boycotted past elections because the Americans were in Iraq.
"We hope that today's election would lead to change the current government, which has let us down despite all the money it has," she said as she and two of her children, also first-time voters, came out of a polling center in the mainly Shiite city.
Authorities also closed Iraq's airspace for the elections. Soldiers and police cast ballots Monday to enable them to provide security on voting day. Iraqis living in about 20 other countries voted Sunday and Monday.
Hamid al-Hemiri and his wife Haifaa Ahmed walked five kilometers (three miles) to reach their polling center on the west bank of the Tigris River.
"We were determined to take part in the election to save our country and so that future generations don't curse us," he said. His wife added: "I am voting to stop the bloodshed in my country. Enough sorrow and pain."
Al-Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq's sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other.
The violence ebbed by 2008 after Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants and Shiite militias declared a cease-fire.
But attacks have surged in the past year, stoked in part by al-Maliki's moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his government. Militants took over the city of Fallujah in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back, and voting was not taking place in parts of the vast province bordering Jordan and Syria.
The insurgents also have been emboldened by the civil war in Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are fighting to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad, a follower of a Shiite offshoot sect. The rebels are dominated by Islamists and members of al-Qaida-linked or inspired groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Shiite militiamen from Iraq fight on the side of Assad's forces.
At the same time, many Iraqis increasingly complain of government corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy after years of war following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Last year, the death toll in Iraq climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed in 2006 and 2007. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and about 2,000 people were killed in the first three months of this year alone.
High-profile attacks have killed dozens in recent days.
A roadside bomb killed two women as they walked to a polling station Wednesday, while another bomb targeted an army patrol, wounding five soldiers in the northern town of Dibis, according to Sarhad Qadir, a senior police officer in the area.
Another bomb in Diblis struck a car carrying election commission employees, killing two, said senior police officer Turhan Abdullah Youssef.
Elsewhere in the north, a police officer was killed when he jumped on a suicide bomber to protect people from the blast, which occurred near a polling center in Beiji. Eleven people were wounded, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Police also shot and killed a would-be suicide bomber before he could blow himself up near a polling center in Mosul.
In Anbar, several mortar shells landed near polling centers, wounding two people, in Amiriyat Fallujah, where thousands of people have taken refuge after fleeing fighting in nearby Fallujah.
Retired army officer Abu Abdullah, a native of Amiriyat Fallujah who would not give his full name, boycotted the vote to protest what he said was the failure of Sunni Arab politicians to protect their community.
"I am not ready to take a risk or even be killed for the sake of corrupt people who might be in the next parliament or government because I am sure they will make a deal with al-Maliki and forget about us."