Attackers have targeted polling stations in Iraq with small bombs and mortar shells, according to security officials. Iraq is holding its first elections since the US military withdrawal.
Mortar shells struck near voting centers in Mahmoudiya and Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, and in Samarra, north of the capital, according to police and hospital officials. Light explosives targeted polling centers in other towns. Other reports of scattered violence have come in, but so far no attack has proved deadly.
"The police and army are deployed everywhere to make sure the election day and polling stations are secured," Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi told state television. "We call upon all the people to go out and cast their ballots because it the best way to face terrorism."
Voting began at 7 a.m. local time (0400 UTC) Saturday for provincial councils in 12 of Iraq's 18 governorates. More than 8,000 candidates from 50 electoral blocs are running for 378 positions. Though the results will not directly affect Iraq's national leadership, the vote will test support for political blocs in the run-up to 2014's parliamentary elections.
'Turn out more'
Security forces have set up cordons around polling places, and some major cities have shut their streets to unauthorized vehicles. Polling stations in Baghdad search voters twice before allowing them to enter.
"Elections do not solve every problem in Iraq, but no problem can be solved without elections," UN special envoy Martin Kobler told reporters after touring a polling station in central Baghdad. Kobler also appealed for Iraqis to "turn out more than now," while visiting the station in a converted school where journalists far outnumbered voters.
Violence also marred the run-up to the vote, leaving more than 100 dead in the past week and 14 candidates killed since campaigning began. Authorities tightened security around the country of nearly 33 million people, with 13.8 million people eligible to vote in the provinces participating in Saturday's elections. And officials cited security concerns in delaying voting in two largely Sunni provinces.
"Today's message ... is to tell the enemies of the political process that we will not retreat," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told state television after voting at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. "We will continue building the state of Iraq on the basis of democracy and free elections."
For the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi forces have had to manage security without the support of the US military and its international coalition. Police and military cast ballots last week to focus on securing the country on Saturday. Election officials reported a 72-percent turnout in voting by security foces.
mkg/slk (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)