• reuters


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.

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

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