BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraqis streamed to voting centres nationwide on Wednesday, amid the worst bloodshed in years, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeks reelection in the first national vote since US troops withdrew.
Voters have a long list of grievances, ranging from poor public services to rampant corruption and high unemployment, but the month-long campaign has centred on Mr Maliki's bid for a third term and a dramatic deterioration in security in recent months.
More than 20 million voters will choose between upwards of 9,000 candidates running for 328 seats in parliament throughout the day, from the opening of voting at 7:00 am (12 noon, Singapore time) until 6:00 pm.
The run-up to the election has seen Baghdad and other major cities swamped in posters and bunting.
Parties have staged rallies and would-be lawmakers have angrily debated on television, though appeals to voters have largely been made on sectarian, ethnic or tribal grounds rather than the issues.
Attacks on polling stations and campaign gatherings in recent days have cast a pall over the vote, and spurred fears that much of the electorate could stay home rather than risk being targeted.
In particular, the two days preceding the election saw more than 80 people killed in a spate of shootings and bombings, mostly concentrated in Baghdad and the restive north and west.
But many Iraqis have said they will head to voting centres regardless.
"I will go to vote... to take part in changing the current situation and the current faces after eight years of economic and security failure from a government in a country whose budget reaches tens of billions of dollars," said architect Ahmed Adel, 40, referring to the successive four-year terms secured by Mr Maliki.
"We must go to the polls, whatever the circumstances. Whoever does not go is wasting his rights, and the rights of others."
SURGE IN VIOLENCE
More than 750 people have been killed this month, with unrest at its worst since Iraq emerged from a brutal sectarian conflict that left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007.
Militants have controlled the town of Fallujah west of Baghdad - the site of major battles during the insurgency against US-led forces - since the beginning of the year.
Parts of restive Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, will not be voting.
Mr Maliki's critics have accused him of consolidating power and marginalising minority Sunnis, and say public services have not sufficiently improved during his eight-year rule.
The 63-year-old, who hails from Iraq's Shi'ite majority, contends the violence is fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria and has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.
He has also complained that his national unity government is made up of groups who snipe at him publicly and block his legislative efforts in parliament.
"All those who are for Iraq's unity, who reject sectarianism and militias, and who do not deal with foreign agents, are our partners," Mr Maliki said in a televised speech on Monday evening.
One bright spot during his time in power has been a significant expansion of oil production. Iraq exported as much as 2.8 million barrels of oil per day earlier this year, though voters complain that much of the windfall is lost to graft.
Mr Maliki's State of Law alliance is tipped to win the most seats in parliament but fall short of a majority. It will face stiff competition in the premier's traditional Shi'ite heartland of central and southern Iraq from a bloc loyal to powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and another party seen as close to Iran.
Sunni and Kurdish areas in the north and west are expected to see parties with strong communal or ethnic appeal do well, but no major party has made a concerted effort to win votes nationwide.
And though Mr Maliki faces significant criticism, analysts say a fractious and divided opposition leaves him the frontrunner to retain the top job.
Forming a government could take months, as the winner will have to court support from across the political spectrum for an encompassing package whereby the president, typically a Kurd, and the parliament speaker, normally a Sunni Arab, are also agreed.