BAGHDAD (AP) — The vibrant posters promise jobs, prosperity and security coming from Iraq's first parliamentary elections since U.S. troops withdrew from the country, but so far, voters have only dim hopes as sectarian bloodshed rages unstopped.
Eleven years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqis live in a deeply divided country sinking back into a cycle of violence that claimed more than 8,800 lives last year alone. Candidates largely campaign by smiling signs alone — some women in conservative districts using only images of husbands or brothers — as suicide bombers killed at least 33 people at a rare rally Friday by a Shiite militant group fielding its own political hopefuls.
The resurgence of sectarian violence, which nearly tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007, is both a reflection of the 3-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria and the politics of a democratic, but splintered nation. Voters in Wednesday's polls are widely expected to cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines, though many say they have little hope the election will bring any real change.
"Iraqi politics needs new blood," said Ammar Faleh, a 35-year-old Shiite government employee in Baghdad's eastern Sadr City. "We don't want the people who created our miseries to be re-elected. We want honest people who can fix the situation, not make it worse."
More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament. As in the last round of nationwide elections in 2010, fierce intra-sectarian political rivalries have left members of the country's majority Shiite community running on different tickets — a shift from the 2006 elections when they formed a unified list with support from traditional religious authorities.
Whichever bloc comes out ahead will have a shot at cobbling together a coalition that will choose the prime minister, though many Iraqis expect that post could well remain in the hands of the man who has held it since 2006: Nouri al-Maliki. However, the administration of Al-Maliki, 63, has been unable to stop the near-daily bloodshed on the country's streets, while corruption permeates all levels of government.
Despite the unrest, al-Maliki is presenting himself as a strong Shiite leader who can defeat the resilient Sunni-led insurgency that has come roaring back on his watch. One of his campaign posters shows him standing next to soldier with a slogan reading: "Together, we defeat terrorism."
Experts predict al-Maliki's State of Law coalition will gain the largest number of seats, given its emergence as the largest single bloc in seven of 12 provinces in last year's provincial elections. But even if he secures the most seats, al-Maliki likely will need to work with opponents to build a coalition to form the next government.
His main Shiite rivals are the al-Muwatin coalition, led by powerful cleric Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, as well as followers of the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrists are running on three separate lists, with the major one called al-Ahrar.
A new Shiite political player running for seats this time around is the extremist Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or "the League of the Righteous." Its followers carried out deadly attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal and claimed responsibility for the 2007 kidnapping of a British contractor along with his four guards.
Their entry into the political process sparked new bloodshed Friday. A Sunni al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said its suicide bombers attacked Asaib Ahl al-Haq's rally for some 10,000 followers Friday, an assault that killed at least 33 people.
The Islamic State said on a militant website that the bombings were to avenge what it called the killing of Sunnis and their forced removal from their homes by Shiite militias. The split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, going back centuries to the founding of Islam, has fueled violence in Iraq, home to 32 million people.
Those sectarian divisions have been exacerbated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Sunnis rebels fight against the rule of President Bashar Assad, a member of a Shiite sect. The Islamic State and Asaib Ahl al-Haq fight on opposite sides in Syria.
Iraq's Sunnis are divided too in the election, no longer throwing the bulk of their support behind the big-tent Iraqiya bloc of the 2010 elections. The main contenders this time are parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's Mutahidoun bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq's Al-Arabiya bloc and the al-Wataniya bloc led by former premier Ayad Allawi, a Shiite.
Iraq's Kurds, who hold their own self-rule region in the north that's seen development and little violence compared to the rest of the country, are also running on different lists in many areas due to political infighting.
Public opinion seems to be as divided as the politicians, with many Iraqis saying what they want most are fresh faces.
"We should not give up dreaming of change," Youssef Ibrahim, 53, a Sunni teacher from Baghdad's northern district of Azamiyah. "Corrupt and sectarian government should be replaced. If we stay at home, al-Maliki will win again and he will keep destroying the country."
Iraq's Sunnis rose up in late 2012 to protest what they see as second-class treatment by the Shiites. Many Sunnis blame al-Maliki for promoting his sect at their expense and for being too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
"We have suffered a lot due to al-Maliki's sectarian policies," said Suleiman Khalaf, a 54-year old Sunni shopkeeper in the northern city of Mosul. "If al-Maliki and his people win the upcoming elections, more disasters will fall on Iraq and Sunnis should look for another country to live in."
But in a stark sign of the country's instability, there will be no balloting in parts of the western Sunni-dominated province of Anbar. The area remains engulfed in clashes that began months ago between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired Sunni militants. The insurgents control pockets of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah.
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