FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — Iraqis in two Sunni-dominated provinces voted Thursday in provincial elections marked by tight security that left streets in former insurgent strongholds largely deserted for much of the day.
The country is confronting its worst outbreak of violence in years and relations between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims remain fraught.
The two provinces where the voting was taking place — Anbar and Ninevah — have seen some of the largest rallies in a months-long wave of Sunni protests against the Shiite-led government.
Authorities imposed a vehicle ban in major cities in the two provinces to protect against car bombings as voting got underway for candidates who will serve on provincial-level councils. Thousands of policemen and soldiers were deployed to secure the vote.
In Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Iraqi capital, security forces sealed off the city with checkpoints that prevented cars from getting in. Streets in the morning were empty except for ambulances, police and army vehicles, and a small number of cars permitted by electoral authorities.
Voters trickling into polling centers were searched twice before being allowed in. Police offered some voters rides to the polls in pickup tricks, as did political parties using minibuses emblazoned with pictures of candidates.
Fallujah voter Fuad Enad Mohammed, 26, said he wanted to see change for his Sunni sect in Anbar.
"With these elections, we will try to bring officials better than the ones in the previous council who didn't offer anything and were not real defenders of Sunnis," he said.
Local authorities eventually lifted the vehicle bans in the afternoon, apparently to encourage people to head to the voting centers by car instead of walking under the scorching sun.
Iraqis voted in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces two months ago. Officials had delayed elections in Anbar and Ninevah because of what they said were security concerns, though some Iraqis questioned that rationale and dismissed it as a political ploy related to the unrest in the provinces.
Some 2.8 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in more than 1,200 polling centers the two provinces. That figure includes nearly 100,000 members of the security forces, many of whom voted in special elections on Monday so they could be on hand to secure the balloting.
Hundreds of candidates from 28 political blocs in Ninevah and 16 in Anbar are hoping to secure seats. There are 39 seats up for grabs in Ninevah and 30 in Anbar.
Among the groups hoping for a strong showing are Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's United bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq's Arab Iraqiya coalition and the secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc headed by Shiite politician Ayad Allawi.
The provincial councils have some say over regional security matters and have the ability to negotiate local business deals and allocate government funds. But provincial council members frequently complain that they are hamstrung by restrictions from federal authorities over how to spend the money.
The councils also choose provincial governors and have the right under Iraq's constitution to call for a referendum to organize into a federal region — a move that could give them considerable autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.
Some protesters and political leaders in Sunni areas, including Anbar and Ninevah, have been agitating for the creation of an autonomous Sunni region, though it is unclear if they could generate broad support for such a move.
Muhieddin Abid, a 45-year old supermarket owner and father of two, cast his vote while wearing the traditional white Arabic shirtdress in Fallujah.
He said he hoped to "prevent the corrupt politicians, the thieves and the officials who care only about their personal interests" from winning seats on the next provincial council.
The April vote was Iraq's first election since the U.S. military withdrawal, and was carried out without major bloodshed on voting day. But insurgents have tried to undermine the electoral process by killing candidates.
A total of 17 candidates have been assassinated ahead of this year's election, with the bulk of them from Ninevah, according to Jose Maria Aranaz, the chief electoral adviser at the United Nations mission to Iraq.
No major violence was reported Thursday morning.
But police and hospital officials said seven people were killed and 24 were wounded when two bombs exploded simultaneously on a soccer field the previous night while teenagers and young adults were playing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
Iraq's largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, which comprises three provinces, will hold its own local elections in September. No vote is scheduled in the ethnically disputed province of Kirkuk, which has not had a chance to elect local officials since 2005 because residents cannot agree on a power-sharing formula there.
Results from Thursday's vote are not expected for several days.
Schreck reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed reporting.
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