BAGHDAD - Iraqis head to the polls on Wednesday in their first national election since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 as Prime Minister Nuri Maliki seeks a third term amid rising violence.

The country's western province of Anbar is awash in violence as Sunni Muslim militants challenge the Iraqi military and Shi'ite militias for territory surrounding Baghdad.

The country's economy is struggling and Maliki faces criticism that he is aggravating sectarian splits and trying to consolidate power for political gain.

On Wednesday voters choose among 9,012 candidates and the parliamentary election effectively serves as a referendum on Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim who has governed eight years.

Political analysts say no party is likely to win a majority in the 382-seat parliament and forming a government may be hard even if Maliki's State of Law alliance, as expected, wins the biggest number of seats.

Maliki, who is fending off challenges from Shi'ite and Sunni rivals, has portrayed himself as his Shi'ite community's defender against the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

This week, Maliki vowed to stop the al-Qaida inspired ISIL from entering Baghdad.


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