- Associated Press - Saturday, April 20, 2013

BAGHDAD — Iraqis cast ballots in regional elections Saturday amid tight security, marking the country’s first vote since the U.S. military withdrawal and a key test of its stability.

The results will not directly affect the shape of Iraq’s national government. But the vote will be an important barometer of support for Iraq’s various political blocs heading into 2014 parliamentary elections, and the outcome could exacerbate the country’s already strained sectarian tensions.

Saturday’s vote will also test the Iraqi army and police, who face a reviving al-Qaida insurgency and are for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion securing an election on their own.

As in past elections, officials have ratcheted up security precautions to thwart attempts by insurgents to disrupt the vote.

Security cordons are set up around polling places, and only authorized 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 U.N. 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 centers in Baghdad and in the towns of Mahmoudiya, Latifiyah and Mussayib, south of the Iraqi capital, as well as in Samarra, to the north, according to police and hospital officials. A bomb went off near a polling center in the southern town of Jibala while stun grenades, which emit a bright flash and loud bang, were thrown at polling centers 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 TV.

Militants have stepped up attacks in recent days. A wave of car bombings and other attacks 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,” 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 centers 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 Iraqiya 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.

Members of Iraq’s police and military cast their ballots last week so that they could focus on securing the country. Electoral officials reported a turnout of 72 percent in that early voting.

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.

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