Baghdad, Iraq - Iraqis are voting in parliamentary elections that are expected to result in a period of difficult coalition-building, as violence across the country soars close to its worst levels seen in several years.
Wednesday's election is the first since US troops pulled out in December 2011 and represents the biggest test the country's often under-equipped security forces have since faced.
The streets of the capital were almost clear of vehicles into the late afternoon, due to restrictions on civilian travel. Large groups of soldiers staffed checkpoints under a searing sun, checking identification cards and searching some of the few vehicles on the move.
The incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, voted in a central Baghdad polling station on Wednesday morning.
"We are voting for the future of our children," he said after casting his ballot.
"Terrorists were challenging us and now we challenge them. I call upon all Iraqis ... to cast their votes in a brave manner. Because that is a big blow in the face of the terrorism."
Suicide attackers killed
Attacks have so far been few. In the city of Ramadi, a man wearing a suicide vest tried to enter a polling station but was shot dead, police said. Five civilians and two policemen were injured in the attack.
In Mosul, 400km northwest of Baghdad, three armed men and a suicide bomber were killed as they tried to enter polling stations in two separate attacks.
A roadside bomb exploded near a polling station in the city of Kirkuk, 290km north of Baghdad, killing two women on their way to vote, police said.
At a polling station at al-Masarra school in Baghdad, Rekan Ahmad was defiant in the face of the threats.
"We already live in the worst place in the world," the 44-year-old said. "What can scare us today?"
A hardline armed group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a triple suicide assault on an election rally last week, killing 37 people and wounding more than 80, in an attack that underlined the difficulty of protecting the vote.
Violence has this year risen to levels not seen since 2006 to 2007, a period when tens of thousands died in tit-for-tat sectarian bloodletting and the country almost fell into all-out civil war.
Nearly 1,700 civilians were killed in the first three months of this year, according to figures from the United Nations.
By late afternoon, in the Nablus School polling station in the Yarmuk neighbourhood of West Baghdad, electoral officials told Al Jazeera there had been about a 38 percent turnout so far.
Several said some people may have stayed away because of the threat of violence and hot weather. A turnout of that level, though, would be considered a success by many analysts given the severity of the security threat.
Maliki stands 'good chance'
Nineteen-year-old Reem Al Janabi, a university student voting with her mother, said she could hardly remember a life in Iraq without war and that she wanted politicians to change.
“When the war ended, there was nothing. They are just people without faces. You can’t see them walking in the streets and asking people about their problems. They need to do that,” she said.
Analysts and diplomats say that 63-year-old Maliki has a good chance of being returned to power, but that he still faces a difficult fight to build a governing coalition.
Though he has no clear direct challenger for the top post, a wide mix of parties - Sunni, Shia, Kurd and secular - are lined up against his Shia Dawa group.
|Iraq increases security for the vote
After the 2010 election, and after an eight-month negotiation period, Maliki formed a coalition government that was backed by Sunni and Kurdish groups.
A coalition government is again a certainty, given the fractured nature of Iraq's politics and its proportional representation electoral system.
Maliki has fallen out with some cross-sectarian colleagues, meaning a new coalition would probably be more Shia-dominated than before.
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry