BAGHDAD — Unshaken by the latest surge in violence, Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and attacks to vote Wednesday in key elections for a new parliament amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.
Hundreds of thousands of troops and police fanned out to guard voting centers in the first nationwide balloting since the 2011 American pullout. Scattered attacks still took place north of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 16.
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 to fall short of a majority. That would allow al-Maliki to keep his post only if he can cobble together a coalition — a task made more difficult given the divisions with former Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies.
Even some of al-Maliki's Shiite backers denounce him as a would-be dictator, amassing 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.
Polls opened across the energy-rich nation at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT, midnight Tuesday EST) and were to close at 6 p.m. There were 22 million eligible voters, choosing from among some 9,000 candidates.
In central Baghdad, police and army manned checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart, while pickup trucks with machine-guns perched on top roamed the streets. Much of the city looked deserted without the normal traffic congestion. Most stores were closed.
Voters are being subjected to multiple searches 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. We want a better life for all Iraqis."
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.
Authorities also closed Iraq's airspace for the elections, and banned vehicles from the streets to reduce the threat of car bombings.
Soldiers and police cast ballots on Monday to enable them to provide security for the rest of voters on Wednesday. Iraqis living in about 20 other countries voted on Sunday and Monday.
Initial and partial results from Wednesday's vote were expected to start trickling out next week, but it was unclear when the final outcome would be announced.
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's communities.
Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased.
But the Sunni-Shiite violence returned, 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.
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.
In many ways, the conflict in Iraq reflects the fault lines of the Syrian civil war, 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.
A series of high-profile attacks has killed dozens in the days leading up to the vote.
On Wednesday, a roadside bomb also killed two women as they walked to a polling station in the small town of Dibis near Kirkuk, a turbulent city some 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad. Another bomb in Dibis targeted an army patrol, wounding five soldiers, according to Sarhad Qadir, a senior police officer in the area.
Also in the north, a police officer jumped on a suicide bomber to protect people from the impact of the blast, which occurred near a polling center in Beiji. The police officer was killed and 11 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 the northern city of Mosul.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad.