Thousands of soldiers, police officers, hospital patients and prisoners cast ballots Wednesday as part of early voting in Iraq's provincial elections.
At least one act of violence accompanied the voting. Two police officers guarding a polling center south of Kirkuk were killed by gunmen who fired at them from a passing car, according to an official from the Ministry of Interior who spoke on condition of anonymity. The gunmen escaped, the official said.
Overall, however, the voting appeared to go smoothly, Iraqi election officials said.
About 615,000 people, most of them employed by Iraq's security forces, were eligible to vote Wednesday, three days before Saturday's election. Officials said the early balloting would help ensure that security forces would be on duty to protect polling stations Saturday, when about 14 million more Iraqis are eligible to vote.
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“The arrangements we are seeing today are a slap in the face to those who are betting that Iraqis will not go to the ballot box because they are despairing,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.
More than 14,000 candidates are running for 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The election will be delayed in Kirkuk province, a troubled region where much of Iraq's oil reserves lie, and in the three provinces of Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region.
The local councils function much like state legislatures but are also responsible for selecting governors and provincial police chiefs.
Perhaps most important, the councils are a prime source of patronage. They dole out government jobs, social benefits and contracts, each an invaluable asset in a country that has high unemployment rates and significant poverty — but that is expected to embark on a major government-sponsored rebuilding program over the next few years.