Soldiers, hospital patients and even prisoners filled ballot boxes Wednesday in special early voting for provincial elections that will be a test for Iraqi forces trying to prevent violence and could set up future political showdowns for Iraq's leadership.
A smooth election could encourage supporters of a fast-paced withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by next year, but any major irregularities or bloodshed in Saturday's main voting could raise worries about the readiness of Iraq's institutions.
There were reports of only sporadic attacks during the early voting — called so police and military units could cast ballots before being deployed for the full-scale vote.
It also included prisons and many hospitals, including a maternity ward in the southern city of Najaf where 21-year-old Salwa Majid filled out a ballot with one hand and cradled her hours-old son with the other.
"It's my duty to vote for a better Iraq," she said, showing off her index finger tinted with purple ink — used in Iraq to identify voters.
In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, hundreds of soldiers in camouflage uniforms streamed into an elementary school to stuff their paper ballots into clear plastic bins.
"We have come here to vote as a kind of defiance to the terrorists," said Sgt. Abdul-Jabar Khalf.
Later in Kirkuk province, gunmen killed two police officers guarding a school used as an early election center, said police and medical officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
Prisoners get a say
In prisons across Iraq, inmates in orange jumpsuits filed in one by one to vote.
Faraj al-Haidari, the head of the election commission, said voting was open to any detainee awaiting trial — even those accused of insurgent attacks or links to al-Qaida in Iraq — but those sentenced to more than five years in prison were not eligible. The rules also covered thousands of Iraqis still held in U.S. military custody, he said.
More than 14,400 candidates — about 3,900 of them women — are competing for 440 seats on ruling councils in 14 of the country's 18 provinces. The central authorities in Baghdad still control the nation's overall policies, but the councils have wide authorities such as cutting commercial deals and setting spending priorities.
"We want a country that unites us, not one that tears us apart," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a campaign stop for political allies in southern Iraq. "Any gap in Iraq's unity will open the gates of hell for us all."
Although the election does not directly threaten al-Maliki, a U.S. ally, the results could put serious strains on his Shiite-led government.
In the Shiite south — Iraq's political center after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime — the biggest political party is hoping to increase its clout at the expense of al-Maliki's backers.
A strong election showing by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council could be used as a springboard to battle al-Maliki's bloc for leadership later this year.
Dispute over self-rule
The Iraqi Council, which maintains ties with both Iran and the United States, hopes to build a self-rule Shiite region modeled on the Kurdish autonomy in the north. Al-Maliki and his Washington allies strongly oppose such a move, fearing it would further fragment Iraq and open the door for greater Iranian influence.
The election official al-Haidari said initial reports indicated participation in the early vote was highest in the south, where the turnout on Saturday's full election will be closely watched since it falls just before an annual Shiite pilgrimage that could keep voters away.
Sunni groups also are jockeying with long-term goals in mind.
The most powerful political newcomers are the Sunni tribes that used their private militias to rise up against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents in a critical turning point of the war. The sheiks now hope to parlay their fame into provincial election seats — which could undercut rival Sunnis who have worked out accommodations with al-Maliki.
Despite a sharp drop in overall violence in Iraq, security forces are taking full precautions. Measures include a vehicle ban during the vote and double-ring cordons around polling stations.
On Wednesday, police frisked fellow officers outside voting places.
U.S. forces are taking only a support role, but have supplied additional material and other aid. The U.S. military said it delivered 200 concrete barrier and 30-foot watchtower this week to a ballot holding center and voting site in northwest Baghdad.
Not all Iraq is taking part in the elections.
It is scheduled for later in the three Kurdish-ruled provinces. In Kirkuk province, the main voting was postponed indefinitely because its various ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing formula. But the special voting took place Wednesday in Kirkuk for security forces.