Polls opened amid tight security in Iraq on Saturday for regional elections in the country’s first vote since the US military withdrawal, marking an important test of the country’s stability.
The results will not directly affect Iraq's national government. But the vote is an important measure of support for Iraq’s various political blocs heading into parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
Saturday’s vote is also a key test for the Iraqi army and police, who face a reviving al-Qaeda insurgency and are for the first time securing the vote on their own.
As in past elections, officials have ratcheted up security precautions to thwart attempts by insurgents to disrupt the vote. Security cordons are set up around polling places, and only authorised vehicles are being allowed on the streets in major cities.
Militants have stepped up attacks in recent days. A wave of car bombings and other attacks Monday killed at least 55 and wounded more than 200. Attacks have continued throughout the week, including a suicide bombing at a packed cafe late Thursday that left 32 dead.
Voting is taking place at more than 5,300 polling centres for members of provincial councils who will serve in 12 of Iraq's 18 governorates. Thousands of candidates from 50 electoral blocs are running for 378 positions.
Iraqis last elected members of provincial councils in January 2009.
The last time Iraqis voted, in national elections in 2010, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-dominated State of Law coalition faced a strong challenge from the Iraqiya bloc, which sought support from Sunnis as well as secular-minded Shias.
Majority Shias have headed the succession of Iraqi administrations that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led regime in 2003.
Iraqiya is running in this election too, but it is now fragmented. Prominent figures such as Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq — who previously banded with Iraqiya — are fielding their own slates of candidates rather than running under the Iraqiya banner.
In Baghdad and the Shia-dominated south, State of Law also will face a challenge from Shiite rivals the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist Trend. A strong showing by them could undermine support for al-Maliki's bloc heading into next year's national elections.
Governorate councils choose provincial governors and have the right under Iraq's constitution to call for a referendum to organise 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.
But provincial councils frequently complain that they are hamstrung by restrictions issued by the central government over the extent of their authority.
At least 14 candidates have been killed in recent weeks, and schools meant to be used as polling places have been bombed.