Iraqis on Wednesday started voting in the country's first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of US troops three years ago.
Polling began at 07:00 local time (04:00 GMT) and close at 19:00, according to media reports.
Unshaken by the latest surge in violence, Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and attacks to vote 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. Scattered attacks still took place north of Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 16, AP reported.
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 were 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 Shia Karradah district. The 37-year-old woman said her brother - a soldier - was killed last week in the northern city of Mosul.
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 Shia Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on 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 militants butchering each other.
Over the years that followed, tribes rose up to fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shia militiamen - and by 2008, the violence had eased.
But the 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.
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.
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.
More than 9,000 candidates are competing for 328 parliamentary seats, BBC reported.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hoping to win a third term in office amid a growing insurgency in the west of the country.
Iraq is experiencing its worst unrest since 2008, with 160 people killed in the last week alone.
More than 20 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, with almost 50,000 polling stations open across the country.
The government has temporarily closed the airport and the main roads in and out of the city in an attempt to reassure voters.
While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the poll, Maliki is still expected to be a pivotal figure in the coalition-building process which will follow the election.
His State of Law alliance, a Shia coalition, has largely avoided the fragmentation seen by other political blocs since the last election.
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