IRAQ PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION HIT BY INSURGENT ATTACKS
Iraq's second parliamentary election since the 2003 invasion has been hit by multiple attacks, with at least 24 people being killed.
Two buildings were destroyed in the capital and dozens of mortars were fired across Baghdad and elsewhere.
The border with Iran was closed, thousands of troops were deployed, and vehicles were banned from roads.
Despite the violence, turnout appears to be strong in several cities, with healthy queues at polling stations.
PM Nouri Maliki had called on voters to turn out in large numbers, saying that participation would boost democracy.
Correspondents in the northern Kurdish city of Suleimaniya reported an early morning surge of voters, while in Baghdad correspondents say some were waiting for attacks – which are traditionally more frequent in the morning – to subside before heading out to the polls.
The election is taking place against a backdrop of much-reduced violence, with casualty figures among civilians, Iraqi forces and US troops significantly lower than in recent years.
But hundreds of people are still being killed each month, corruption is high and the provision of basic services such as electricity is still sporadic.
In one attack, 12 people were killed and eight injured when an explosion destroyed a residential building in northern Baghdad, officials said, shortly after another blast in the city killed five others.
Seven died in other attacks across the country, but no polling stations are reported to have been hit.
Sporadic mortar fire could be heard across the capital after polls opened at 0400 GMT, two bomb blasts were reported near a polling station in Falluja, and there were also reports of mortar rounds being fired in Salahuddin province.
Islamic militants had pledged to disrupt the voting process with attacks – a group affiliated to al-Qaeda distributed leaflets in Baghdad warning people not to go to the polls.
A vast operation, involving more than half-a-million members of Iraq's combined security forces, has been put in place to try to prevent attackers from disrupting the election.
Most of the mortars were fired from Baghdad's predominantly Sunni districts, said the city's security spokesman, Maj Gen Qassim al-Moussawi.
“We are in a state of combat,” he said. “We are operating in a battlefield and our warriors are expecting the worst.”
But despite the hail of attacks, he said a car ban aimed at stopping car bombs had been lifted after four hours of voting, Reuters reported. Curbs on buses and lorries remained in force.
Candidates from 86 factions are vying for 325 parliamentary seats, and some 19 million Iraqis are eligible to vote. Polls will close at 1500 GMT unless voting hours are extended.
Despite Sunday's attacks, Iraq's independent electoral commission said only two of 50,000 polling stations across the country had been closed for short periods due to security concerns.
Mr Maliki told the BBC that the violence should not deter voters from turning out.
“What happened will push voters to take part in the election,” he said.
“Most of those attacks are designed to psychologically terrorise the voters and prevent them from going to the polls.
“But it is well-known that Iraqis when they are challenged by terror, challenge it back.”
In some neighbourhoods, mosque loudspeakers are exhorting people to go out and vote, and voters seem to be heeding the calls.
In Azamiyah (northern Baghdad), Walid Abid, 40, cast his vote to the crumple of mortars exploding not far away.
“I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home,” said the father-of-two.
“Until when? We need to change things. If I stay home and not come to vote, Azamiyah will get worse,” AP quoted him as saying.
The previous election, in 2005, saw Mr Maliki become prime minister with Shia Muslim parties dominating the legislature.
President Jalal Talabani, seeking another term, was among the first to vote on Sunday in Suleimaniya, and said the election marked both a step, and a test, on Iraq's march to democracy.
In a rare public appearance, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, speaking in neighbouring Iran, urged Iraqis to vote and to reject violence.
Test for democracy?
Iraq's last elections were in February 2009, when voters chose local representatives.
Sunday's elections are being seen as a crucial test for Iraq's national reconciliation process ahead of a planned US military withdrawal in stages.
US President Barack Obama plans to withdraw combat forces by the middle of this year and all US troops are expected to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
Correspondents say Prime Minister Maliki looks likely to retain power at the head of his Shia-led coalition.
The key will be whether Mr Maliki can bring Iraq's embittered Sunni minority into his government and make them feel they have a stake in Iraq's political future again.
Expatriate votes cast in Jordan and Syria could play a deciding role in a tight election race, counting for around 10 seats.
There was a reportedly high turnout, with estimates suggesting 800,000 people cast ballots.