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Amid heightened violence, Iraq holds first national vote since US troop pullout

Iraqis are voting in their first national elections since the withdrawal of US forces in 2011. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term amid the country's worst bloodshed in years.

Voters went to the polls around Iraq on Wednesday

after a month-long election campaign

that saw Baghdad and other major cities adorned with flags and posters. More than 20 million people are eligible to participate in the election, which has more than 9,000 candidates vying for 328 seats.

No single party is expected to win a majority in parliament and although al-Maliki's State of Law alliance is expected to fare best, forming a government could be difficult.

The two-term prime minister is facing criticism over consolidating power and failing to improve public services as the country struggles with a poor economy. Al-Maliki, who hails from Iraq's Shiite majority, has also been accused of fueling sectarian tensions by marginalizing the country's Sunni population.

After casting his vote in Baghdad, al-Maliki (pictured above) told reporters, "Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory."

Pre-election bloodshed

The run-up to the vote was marred by

attacks on polling stations and election events, raising concern that turnout could be low on election day. The past two days have seen a streak of shootings and bombings, mostly in Baghdad and Iraq's unstable north and west, that have left more than 80 people dead. Parts of restive Anbar province, which contains the militant-controlled city of Fallujah, will not be voting.

More than 750 people have been killed in April and bloodshed in the country is at its worst since the 2006-2007 sectarian conflict that killed thousands.

The 63-year-old al-Maliki argues the spike in violence is due to the civil war in neighboring Syria. He has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing insurgents.

The next step

The government formation process to follow the election could be a long, drawn-out process. It took nine months to seat a government after the previous national vote in 2010, which was held with thousands of US soldiers in the country.

Experts have warned it could take a year to form a government this time around, as minority Sunni, Kurdish and outspoken Shiite parties must be brought together.

dr/hc (AFP, Reuters)

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