Iraq on Friday prepared for its first election since 2005 with security forces on high alert after gunmen killed candidates and campaign workers, raising fears of new violence ahead of polling day.
Reports of attempts to buy votes and fears about fraud threaten to cast a shadow over an otherwise vibrant campaign that will test the country's growing security.
It was difficult to quantify how widespread the attempts have been to garner votes with gifts, but the issue has become a talking point among Iraqis before Saturday's regional vote.
The run-up to Saturday's poll had been relatively free of violence but the shooting of election contenders in Baghdad and in the cities of Baquba and Mosul, north of the capital, on Thursday night exposed the threat that such attacks could throw voting day into chaos.
The elections are seen as a key test of Iraq's steadily improving stability, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks to redeploy American troops to Afghanistan.
Iraqi and U.S. military commanders have in recent days warned that al-Qaeda poses a threat to the elections.
Campaigning for the vote officially ended at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on Friday and Iraq's borders will be closed at 10:00 pm. Transport bans and night-time curfews will also be put in place as part of stepped up security measures.
"We have deployed all of our security forces around Anbar to be sure that election day will be safe and people will be safe," Major General Tarek Yussef, chief of police in the overwhelmingly Sunni province of Anbar, told AFP.
Saturday's vote is expected to see Sunni Arabs turn out in force in a reversal of the January 2005 parliamentary elections and is also being seen as a quasi referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The Shiite Muslim premier has been striding out as an increasingly strong figure on the political stage as he has presented a secular national agenda in response to the sectarianism that has long gripped Iraq.
Although Maliki is not standing, he has thrown his support behind a list of candidates that make up the State of Law Coalition.
Maliki rejected media reports about attempted vote fraud. "We want to show the world our elections are transparent," he said.
But the irregularities are blots on a campaign that has been far more spirited than Iraq's other elections since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Candidates previously feared for their lives, and hid their identities.
Four years ago Iraq's Sunni Arabs boycotted the legislative election, allowing Shiite and Kurdish parties to take control of parliament, but Sunnis are now expected to take part in large numbers.
Thursday's killings, however, highlighted the risk that sectarian hatred poses to voting day.
Murders ahead of polls
The first murder occurred in Baghdad, where armed men opened fire on Omar Faruq al-Ani, a candidate for the Iraqi Concord Front, the main Sunni group in the country's parliament, police and army officials told AFP.
The second victim, Hazim Salim Ahmed, a Sunni standing for the Iraqi National Unity list, was shot dead outside his home in the northern city of Mosul, considered the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The killing led local security officials to bring forward to Friday morning the planned 10.00 pm ban on cars, Major Shaban Dawad, of the Mosul police told AFP.
Also on Thursday evening, a third candidate from a mixed Sunni, Kurd and Shiite party, was killed along with two campaign workers as they put up election posters near the central city of Baquba.
The U.N.'s special representative to Iraq Staffan de Mistura condemned the murders, describing them as "a terrible crime designed to attempt to disrupt the democratic process on the eve of the elections."
Iraq's provincial councils are responsible for nominating the governors who lead the administration, and oversee finance and reconstruction projects. They control a combined budget of $2.4 billion. Security forces remain under federal government control.
The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission is organizing the elections, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting.
The vote will not include the three autonomous Kurdish provinces -- Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, all in the north. The election in Kirkuk province was postponed by a political dispute.
An election seen as illegitimate could spur new violence just as Iraqis embrace increasing security and stability almost six years after the U.S. invasion.
More than 14,000 candidates are vying for 440 provincial council seats in 14 of 18 provinces.