Bombs near polling centers mar first Iraq vote since U.S. exit

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A dozen small bombs exploded and mortar rounds landed near polling centers in Iraq on Saturday, wounding at least four people during voting in the country’s first provincial elections since the departure of U.S. troops, Reuters reported.

Two mortar rounds injured three voters and a policeman at a school used as a voting center in Latifiya, south of Baghdad, soon after the start of the ballot that will measure parties’ political strength before parliamentary elections in 2014.

Small bombs exploded in Tuz Khurmato, Tikrit and Samarra in the north and six more mortar rounds landed in a town near the southern city of Hilla, without causing any injuries, said police.

To reduce security risks, Iraq has closed its border crossings as people headed to vote on Saturday’s elections, a key test of its stability amid a spike in attacks that has claimed more than 100 lives, Al Arabiya correspondent reported.

Polls opened about 7:00 am (0400 GMT) for Iraq’s first vote since parliamentary elections in 2010, an AFP journalist said.

An estimated 13.8 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates, with 378 seats being contested.

But the lead-up to the vote has been blighted by a spike in violence that has left more than 100 people dead in the past week, and 14 election candidates killed since campaigning began.

At least 14 candidates have been killed in recent weeks, and schools meant to be used as polling places have been bombed.

Six of Iraq’s 18 provinces will not be participating -- two because authorities say security cannot be ensured, and four because of various political disagreements.

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, according to the Associated Press. 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, Prime Minister Nouri 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.

Iraqiya is running in this election too, but it is now fragmented. Prominent figures such as Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq - who previously banded with Iraqiya - are fielding their own slates of candidates rather than running under the Iraqiya banner.

In Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated south, State of Law also will face a challenge from Shiite rivals the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Trend. A strong showing by them could undermine support for al-Maliki's bloc heading into next year’s national elections.

Governorate councils choose provincial governors and have the right under Iraq’s constitution to call for a referendum to organize themselves into a federal region - a move that could give them considerable autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. They also have some say over regional security matters and the ability to negotiate local business deals and allocate government funds.

But provincial councils frequently complain that they are hamstrung by restrictions issued by the central government over the extent of their authority.