• Reuters

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Iraqis headed to the polls on Wednesday in their first national election since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeks a third term amid rising violence.

The country’s western province of Anbar is awash in violence as Sunni Muslim militants challenge the Iraqi military and Shiite militias for territory surrounding Baghdad.

The country’s economy is struggling and al-Maliki faces criticism that he is aggravating sectarian splits and trying to consolidate power for political gain.

On Wednesday voters were choosing among 9,012 candidates, with the parliamentary election effectively serving as a referendum on al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who has governed for eight years.

Political analysts say no party is likely to win a majority in the 382-seat parliament and forming a government may be hard even if al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance wins the biggest number of seats, as expected.

Al-Maliki, who is fending off challenges from Shiite and Sunni rivals, has portrayed himself as the defender of his Shiite community against the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

This week, al-Maliki vowed to stop the al-Qaida-inspired ISIS from entering Baghdad.

“Is ISIS and al-Qaida capable of reaching the target for they were established . . . bringing down Baghdad and the other provinces and destroying the holy shrines? I say no,” al-Maliki said.

“ISIS is over, but its pockets still exist and we will keep chasing them, and the few coming days will witness major developments.”

His forces are currently locked in a four-month fight for the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar. His troops have surrounded Fallujah and are waging street battles in Ramadi. The war has displaced an estimated 420,000 people and the Iraqi electoral commission concedes it can only hold the election in 70 percent of Anbar, not counting Fallujah.

On Monday 50 people were killed in attacks around Iraq, with some suicide bombers dressed in police and army uniforms. The burden falls particularly hard on Iraq’s Sunni population, who are viewed with suspicion by the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces and terrorized by the ISIS.

Iraq’s Sunni political leaders paint al-Maliki as an authoritarian ruler who wants to destroy their community. His main Sunni nemesis, the parliament speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, criticized the prime minister this week.

“Our people haven’t harvested the national partnership, only the rattle of weapon, the language of blood, the education of revenge, the sectarian inciting, the displaced people as a result of terrorism and militias,” al-Nujaifi told supporters recently.

The coming period will be a test of Iraq’s democracy. It took nine months to seat a government after the last national election in 2010. That competition took place with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in the country.

This time, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties are outspoken about their wish for al-Maliki to go, but al-Maliki is still expected to perform better than the others.

Some warn this time the government formation process could take a year. The negotiations will take place with intense fighting occurring around the edges of Baghdad and Anbar, injecting an element of instability into the proceedings.

In contrast to prior national unity governments, al-Maliki is expected to seek a stronger coalition built around a majority government.

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