Iraq forces cast ballots ahead of provincial polls

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Iraqi soldiers and policemen cast their ballots for provincial elections on Saturday, a week ahead of the main vote that comes amid an uptick in violence and a long-running political crisis.

The credibility of the elections, the first since March 2010 parliamentary polls, has been drawn into question following bloody attacks on candidates and a government decision to partially postpone voting that means only 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces will take part.

At least a dozen hopefuls have been killed while others have been wounded or kidnapped in the run-up to the elections and, although security has markedly improved since the height of Iraq's confessional conflict, March was still the deadliest month since August, according to AFP figures.

More than 8,000 candidates will be standing in the elections, with 378 seats on provincial councils up for grabs. An estimated 16.2 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, among them about 650,000 members of the security forces.
The latest elections come with the country mired in a political crisis that has pitted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against several of his erstwhile national unity cabinet partners, and amid more than three months of anti-government protests by the country's Sunni Arab minority.

The polls are seen as a key barometer of Maliki's popularity ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

The premier has battled allegations from his opponents of monopolizing power, and little in the way of landmark legislation has been passed by parliament, but Maliki insists he is attempting to make the most out of an unruly coalition.

Provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who take charge of the provinces' administrations, finances and reconstruction projects.

The police also ostensibly fall under provincial remit, but the federal government has typically held sway over security matters.

Six provinces will not vote in the polls -- the three of the autonomous Kurdistan region, the disputed northern province of Kirkuk, and two Sunni-majority provinces where authorities say security cannot be guaranteed.