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BAGHDAD – Even the dead are not spared the campaigning for Iraq's upcoming local elections.
Brightly colored placards blanket major streets and hang around the vast cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, appealing to the hundreds of mourners who stream through each day.
The April 20 vote for provincial governing councils will be the first election since the U.S. military withdrawal in December 2011. Even though elections for federal positions such as prime minister and parliament are not scheduled until next year, this will nevertheless be a key test for Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's dominant political bloc.
Members of the police and army cast their ballots early in special voting on Saturday.
"I am looking for real change," said Ali Talib, a 27-year old policeman who was voting for the first time at a heavily guarded school in Baghdad. "This is the first election where we totally depend on ourselves to run and protect the election process."
The results will be an important gauge of support for various political blocs heading into 2014 national elections. Al-Maliki has not ruled out seeking a third term next year despite charges from opponents that his administration is a dictatorship in the making.
A vote without major violence would be a victory in itself for the police and army, who face a reviving al-Qaida insurgency.
Militants are making sure they are heard in the run-up to the polls. At least 13 candidates have been killed so far. In one attack earlier this month, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a lunch hosted by a Sunni candidate in the city of Baqouba. The candidate survived.
More than 8,000 candidates from a dizzying array of dozens of electoral blocs, including many little-known small parties, are in the running.
In the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, the fierce competition among them is evident. Posters of the candidates hang in the narrow spaces among the crowded tombs and mausoleum walls.
Some would-be voters, including 46-year-old retired government employee Haider Khazim, say that is in poor taste. He came across the posters while burying a relative there about a month ago.
"Even the dead become part of this electoral farce," he said.
"We know that the people running for this election are after the huge salaries, privileges and a share in (government) contracts. The last thing that crosses their mind ... is to end the suffering of the people in their provinces," Khazim added.
Public anger over poor services, corruption and dim job prospects is common across Iraq. Many cities, including the capital, lack steady electricity and suffer from crumbling streets and rickety sewage systems.
Local councils tussle with national leaders in Baghdad over how to spend money allocated to develop the provinces. Provincial councils repeatedly complain that they are tied up by restrictions issued by the central government over how to spend the funds.
That lack of progress a decade after the 2003 U.S. invasion has left many voters apathetic — if not downright cynical.
On some Baghdad streets, vandals have removed one Arabic letter in the widely used slogan "My province first" so the defaced signs now read: "My wallet first." Satirists online have rejiggered the electoral slogan of al-Maliki's bloc from "Construction and Determination" to "Explosion and Exclusion" — a reference to the feelings of many Sunnis that they have been marginalized by the Shiite-led government.
Candidate Murtada al-Bazouni, from al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, said he understands voters' frustrations. But he urged them to participate nonetheless, because "boycotting only means that old faces will return" to office.
The last time Iraqis voted, in national elections in 2010, al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition faced a strong challenge from the Iraqiya bloc, which sought support from Sunnis as well as secular-minded Shiites.
Majority Shiites have headed the succession of Iraqi administrations that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led regime in 2003.
Iraqiya is running in this election too, but it is now fragmented. Prominent figures such as Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq — who previously banded with Iraqiya — are fielding their own slates of candidates rather than running under the Iraqiya banner.
In Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated south, al-Maliki's State of Law also will face a challenge from Shiite rivals — the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist Trend — both of them closely allied with Shiite Iran. A strong showing by them could mobilize their political base and undermine support for al-Maliki's bloc heading into next year's national elections.
Six of the country's 18 governorates are not voting in this election.
Voters in three provinces that make up the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, which operates its own regional government, are expected to cast ballots in local elections later this year.
Voters in the ethnically disputed and oil-rich province of Kirkuk have not had a chance to elect local officials since 2005 because residents cannot agree on a power-sharing formula there.
Iraq's Cabinet, citing security concerns, decided to postpone elections for up to six months in Sunni-dominated Anbar and Ninevah provinces, where anti-government protests have raged for months. The delay has not been welcomed by many voters and raises questions about the credibility of the vote.
So does the fact that the police and army are voting a full week before the rest of the country, which means their ballots will have to be safeguarded for a longer period of time. In the past, the police and army voted just a couple days before the general public.
Members of the security forces interviewed Saturday said their superiors encouraged them to vote, though they denied being pressured to vote for any particular bloc.
One police officer voting in Baghdad, Adnan Hameed, said he expects all of his comrades will cast ballots and many will be for al-Maliki's bloc.
"They have the strength and resolve to defeat terrorism, and they are honest people," he said.
This time around, Iraqi electoral officials will allocate seats using a new formula that more closely translates the percentage of votes into a percentage of seats, said Jose Maria Aranaz, the chief electoral adviser at the United Nations mission to Iraq.
Previously, parties that failed to reach a minimum threshold saw their votes discarded, while top vote-getters often secured a disproportionately large number of seats even if they did not win a majority outright.
"The provincial councils should be more representative, and there will be less wasted votes," Aranaz said.
Political analyst Hadi Jalo predicted that half of the more than 16 million registered voters would cast ballots. Many, he forecast, will do so out of loyalty rather than a belief that their votes will bring about meaningful change.
"Those voters believe that it is a ... duty to vote for people from their own sect or tribe," he said.
AP writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed.
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