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.