Polling stations opened across Iraq on Wednesday in the first stage of the country's landmark provincial election, the nation's first ballot since 2005.
About 614,000 police, soldiers, hospital patients and prisoners are entitled to vote at 1,672 established voting centers that opened at 7 am (0400 GMT) and will close at 5 pm.
The early voting is taking place ahead of Saturday's main ballot to try to avoid the security, logistical and electoral fraud problems of the election four years ago, when all eligible Iraqis had to vote on the same day.
"At seven in the morning voting began that included army, police, patients and detainees," Hassan al-Waeli, chief of the electoral commission in Diwaniyah province told AFP.
"There were around 20,000 voters at 12 of our polling centers," he said.
The elections are seen by Washington and Baghdad as a crucial step in securing stability in the face of simmering unrest as U.S. troops prepare to accelerate their plan to withdraw from Iraq by
With the help of the United Nations, Iraq is holding the elections in 14 of its 18 provinces. Some 15 million citizens are being called to the polls to elect officials for 440 seats.
Iraqis have embraced the voting enthusiastically. Some 14,400 candidates, including nearly 4,000 women, have registered to fight the provincial council seats. Campaign posters are plastered all over the concrete blast walls that have sprung up throughout the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq's provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who lead the administration, finance and reconstruction projects in their areas, while security forces remain under Baghdad's control.
In the Shiite south, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is hoping to win support in provinces long dominated by large rival parties. In other parts of the country, Sunni Arabs, many of whom boycotted the last provincial poll, are seeking a bigger share of provincial power.
The elections are an important test for Maliki, who himself faces the voters in national elections due later this year.
Once seen as a weak leader, the prime minister strengthened his hand over the past year after cracking down on militias and winning the U.S. commitment to withdraw within three years. But he still has only a limited power base in the provinces.
The election campaign so far has not seen a surge in violence feared by U.S. and Iraqi commanders. At least two candidates were assassinated, but overall attacks have remained at among the lowest levels since the war began.
Signs of confusion
Holding a successful election is an important test for Iraq, however in some regions there were some signs of confusion.
At the Ma'qal Prison in the southern city of Basra, fights broke out between guards and journalists brought inside to film the voting. Several photographers were beaten by guards who accused them of taking pictures that showed prisoners' faces.
Tens of thousands of displaced people are also registered for early voting, although they make up only a fraction of up to four million Iraqis believed to have fled abroad or to other parts of Iraq during years of fighting.