BAGHDAD // Iraqis braved the fear of violence to vote in the first election since the US military withdrawal, though delayed voting in some parts of the country and an apparently lacklustre turnout elsewhere cast doubt about the credibility of the vote.
Candidates are vying for seats on provincial councils that have sway over public works projects and other decisions at the local level. Saturday's vote was an important barometer of support for Iraq's various political blocs heading into next year's parliamentary elections. Electoral blocs that succeed in a given province could translate that influence into a broader support for the 2014 vote.
The election was carried out without large-scale bloodshed, although officials ratcheted up security precautions to thwart insurgent attempts to disrupt the vote. The election was a test of the Iraqi army and police, who face a reviving Al Qaeda insurgency and are for the first time since the 2003 US-led invasion security an election on their own.
Security cordons were set up around polling places, and only authorised vehicles are being allowed on the streets in major cities. Voters dipped an index finger in ink after casting ballots to ensure each person voted only once.
By early afternoon, the UN special representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, said the voting was going smoothly. He urged Iraqis to the polls, saying "the credibility of the elections depends also on the turnout".
There were reports of scattered violence during the first several hours of voting, but no fatalities. Six people were reported wounded.
Mortar shells struck near voting centres in Baghdad and in the towns of Mahmoudiya, Latifiyah and Mussayib, south of the capital, as well as in Samarra, to the north, according to police and hospital officials. A bomb went off near a polling centre in the southern town of Jibala while stun grenades, which emit a bright flash and loud bang, were thrown at polling centres in the towns of Iskandariyah and Beiji.
Deputy interior minister Adnan Al Asadi described the security situation as stable.
"The police and army are deployed everywhere to make sure the election day and polling stations are secured. We call upon all the people to go out and cast their ballots because it the best way to face terrorism," he told state television.
Salih Bilal, 49, from Amiriyah, said he was prompted to vote following the the suicide bombing in a Baghdad cafe on Thursday that killed more than 30 young people and 65.
"I've just voted to challenge who blew up (the cafe) a few days ago. We want to prove that their terror (tactics) won't scare us from building a bright future for us and our youth," he said.
Um Suham, a widow from Sadr City and mother of three, said she was voting for female candidates.
"(Their election) will help to develop women rights and lives and, surely, life for widows like me . I will vote to a woman candidate from Sadrist list as the order came to us ...to vote for them and help them reach provincial council ," she said.
Militants have stepped up attacks in recent days. A wave of car bombings and other attacks on Monday killed at least 55 and wounded more than 200. Attacks have continued throughout the week, including a suicide bombing at a packed cafe late Thursday that left 32 dead.
Iraqi state television showed government officials, including prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, casting their ballots at the Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"Today's message ... is to tell the enemies of the political process that we will not retreat," Mr Al Maliki said after voting. "We will continue building the state of Iraq on the basis of democracy and free elections."
Voting is taking place at more than 5,300 polling centres for members of provincial councils who will serve in 12 of Iraq's 18 governorates. Thousands of candidates from 50 electoral blocs are running for 378 positions.
Iraqis last elected members of provincial councils in January 2009.
The last time Iraqis voted, in national elections in 2010, Al Maliki's Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition faced a strong challenge from the Iraqiyya bloc, which sought support from Sunnis as well as secular-minded Shiites.
Majority Shiites have headed the succession of Iraqi administrations that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led regime in 2003.
Iraqiyya is running in this election too, but it is now fragmented. Prominent figures such as parliament speaker Osama Al Nujaifi and deputy prime minister Saleh Al Mutlaq - who previously banded with Iraqiyya - are fielding their own slates of candidates rather than running under the Iraqiya banner.
Karim Hani, who voted in Baghdad's Sadr City district, said he didn't plan to vote at first because he was disappointed by the performance of provincial officials. Sectarian concerns changed that.
"I changed my mind because our religious leaders asked us to vote, and mostly because of the threats Shiites receive - mainly from the demonstrators," he said, referring to anti-government protests in Sunni-dominated provinces that have raged since December.
At least 14 candidates have been killed in recent weeks, and schools meant to be used as polling places have been bombed.
There are 13.8 million voters eligible to participate in the provinces where elections are being held Saturday.
Results are not expected for several days.
* With additional reporting from the Associated Press