Iraqis to vote in key test of stability

Iraqis vote on Saturday in a key test of political stability and security in the country's first elections since US troops withdrew at the end of 2011.

The provincial elections, the first since parliamentary polls in 2010, will be a gauge of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's popularity as he spars with several of his erstwhile partners in government who accuse him of a consolidating power and reneging on agreements.

The country's Sunni Arab minority, meanwhile, has been demonstrating for months to decry the alleged targeting of their community by the Shiite-led authorities.

That has further increased sectarian tensions in a country that fought a bloody communal conflict which left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007, and has seen a recent uptick in violence.

Two of the country's 18 provinces will not even be voting in the polls because authorities say security in those Sunni-majority areas cannot be guaranteed, and 14 candidates have been assassinated across the country.

Voters in four more provinces will also miss out -- those in the northern province of Kirkuk and in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

In Kirkuk, elections are indefinitely on hold because of disagreement between various political and ethnic groups in the province, which is claimed by both Kurdistan and the federal government.

And in Kurdistan, elections are typically not held at the same time as the rest of the country, but will come some time before September 8.

"It (the election) crystallises the polarisation along sectarian lines, certainly more so than the last election," said London-based Crispin Hawes, Middle East and North Africa director for the Eurasia Group consultancy.

"This speaks to the fundamental problem in Iraq. I'm still waiting for someone to have a policy discussion -- the distinctions (between political parties) are almost never to do with policy."

Indeed, after parliament was elected, lawmakers jockeyed for months before agreeing on who would be prime minister. And since then, political bickering has meant that little in the way of landmark legislation has been passed.

As a result, few voter concerns such as poor basic services have been addressed, while corruption remains rampant and unemployment is high.

Provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who take charge of the provinces' administration, finances and reconstruction projects, and have sway over key local issues such as sewerage and other services.

But while several contentious issues fall under the purview of the councils, campaigning in Iraq is rarely divided along ideological lines or focused on policy.

Instead, parties typically appeal to voters based on shared sectarian, ethnic or tribal identity.

An estimated 13.5 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates standing in the elections, all running for 378 seats.

While violence in Iraq has fallen significantly from the height of the sectarian war, the country still faces significant security challenges, mainly from Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda who launch attacks in a bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government.

The polls are to be held amid a spike in violence. Attacks have killed more than 200 people each month so far this year, compared to tolls well below that figure for the last three months of 2012, according to AFP figures.

A wave of nationwide attacks killed 50 people on Monday, the bloodiest day in a month.

Iraqi forces are solely responsible for polling security, the first time they have been without support from American or other international forces during elections since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

The police also ostensibly fall under provincial remit, but the federal government has typically been responsible for security matters.