BAGHDAD - Security personnel cast their ballots nationwide Monday ahead of Iraq's first election since US troops withdrew, amid attacks on voting centres and fears the country is slipping into all-out conflict.
Uniformed and civilian members of the security forces queued up at schools across Baghdad and around the country as polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT), leaving with the traditional purple ink-stained finger indicating they had cast their vote.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, lambasted by critics for allegedly consolidating power and targeting minority groups amid a deterioration of security, is bidding for a third term in the April 30 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.
I have come to vote "for the sake of Iraq, and to change the faces who have not served Iraq," said Ahmed, a policemen wearing civilian clothes who was queueing at a polling station in central Baghdad and declined to give his full name.
"We want to choose better people."
Along with members of the security forces, hospital and prison staff will also vote on Monday.
The election commission meanwhile said that more than 60,000 ballots had so far been cast in out-of-country voting.
Attacks on candidates, election workers and political rallies have cast a shadow over the election, however, and parts of the country that have been out of government control for months will not see any ballots cast.
On Sunday alone, five voting centres in the northern city of Kirkuk were attacked by militants, while authorities have announced a week's public holidays to try to bolster security for the election.
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.