BAGHDAD: Iraqi army and police personnel began voting for a new parliament on Monday, two days before the rest of the nation's 22 million registered voters can go to the polls in the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The early balloting is meant to free up the 1 million-strong military and security forces for election day on Wednesday, so they can protect polling stations and voters.
More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament, which is widely expected to be won by an alliance led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is expected to seek a third four-year term in office.
Security was tight amid concerns that Sunni militants blamed for a recent resurgence of sectarian violence could target polling stations.
At one central Baghdad polling station, policemen went through four ID checks and search stations before they could enter the building on Monday. Inside, police dogs were used to search for explosives. Some policemen came to cast votes dressed in civilian clothes, to attract less attention.
"These are crucial elections that we hope will make things better in Iraq," said one voter, policeman Hatef Yidam. "We want peace and a life with dignity."
Hospital patients, medical staff and detainees were also voting on Monday. Abroad, Iraqi expatriates in more than 20 countries will also be able to cast ballots for a second day.
Iraq is experiencing a surge in sectarian violence, with Sunni militants increasingly targeting security forces, army troops and members of the nation's Shiite majority. The resurgence of the bloodletting, which nearly tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007, underscores the precarious politics of a democratic, but splintered nation.
It also mirrors the three-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, where the civil war pits forces loyal to President Bashar Assad whose powerbase stems from followers of a Shiite offshoot sect, against mostly Sunni Arab rebels whose ranks are dominated by Islamists and militants from al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups. Iraqi Shiite militiamen fight on the side of Assad's forces.
The biggest election-related violence in Iraq came on Friday, when a series of bombings targeted an election rally for a militant Shiite group, killing at least 33 people. The rally for the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq was held at a sports stadium in eastern Baghdad to present the group's parliamentary candidates.
An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack, which triggered a wave of revenge killings late on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, 10 people were killed in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district when a bomb went off at an outdoor market. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of militant Sunni groups.
Voters in Wednesday's polls are widely expected to cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines.
But balloting will not take place in parts of the vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad, where al-Qaida spin-off militants control parts of two cities, including the provincial capital, Ramadi.
Al-Maliki's government has meanwhile announced a weeklong national holiday to coincide with the elections, extending a previously announced three-day break. Such moves were common in past elections, chiefly to empty the streets and allow security forces faster access to attack sites.
A ban on vehicles will take effect on Tuesday night in Baghdad and stay in force throughout election day on Wednesday, a precautionary measure used in past voting to guard against car bombings.