Iraqis voted for provincial councils on Saturday in their first ballot since U.S. troops left the country, a key measure of political strength before parliamentary elections next year.
Iraqi politics are deeply split along sectarian lines with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government mired in crisis over how to share power among Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds who run their own autonomous region in the north.
Violence and suicide bombings have surged since the start of the year with a local al-Qaeda wing vowing a campaign to stoke widespread confrontation among the country's combustible sectarian and ethnic mix.
For Maliki, a strong showing by his Shi'ite State of Law alliance may consolidate a shot at a third term in 2014 elections when he has hinted it is time to form a majority government of Shi'ite and moderate Sunnis.
More than 8,000 hopefuls are running for nearly 450 provincial council seats across the OPEC oil-producing country. More than a dozen candidates, mostly Sunnis, were killed during campaigning.
Washington weighed into the election process, asking the government not to alienate Sunni voters after the Cabinet postponed voting in two mostly Sunni provinces because local officials warned they could not provide security there.
Since December, thousands of Sunni Muslim protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they say is the marginalisation of their sect by Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
Three provinces in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, run by ethnic Kurds since 1991, and the ethnically mixed, disputed city of Kirkuk, will not be voting on Saturday.
Many Iraqis are concerned about security, jobs and basic services that are lacking a decade after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Shi'ite majority through the ballot box.