BAGHDAD — Soldiers, police, prisoners and hospital patients cast early ballots Wednesday in provincial elections that are intended to redistribute power across Iraq and help quell sectarian and ethnic strife.
The early balloting ensured that security forces are available for duty on Saturday, when the rest of Iraq's voters will choose from among 14,467 candidates for 440 council seats.
About 15 million people are registered to vote in the elections, which officials hope will redress inequities resulting from the last balloting, in 2005. Most Sunni Arabs boycotted that vote, leaving even Sunni-dominated regions under the control of Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds and exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tensions.
"It most certainly contributed to many Sunnis falling into violent temptation," the U.N. special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, said of their decision to boycott four years ago.
This time the Sunnis are taking part, and if the results are widely accepted and the vote is deemed fair, De Mistura said, it will be a sign that Iraqis have moved beyond the violence.
"It is the curtain-raiser to see whether we are moving really from bullets to ballots in Iraq," he said.
One act of violence marred what otherwise appeared to be a calm day of voting, underscoring military officials' reminders that insurgents remain active. Gunmen fired on a polling site being used for special voting in Tuz Khurmatu, about 110 miles north of Baghdad, killing two police officers. The gunmen escaped, Police Lt. Farhad Abdullah said.
Areas to the north and south of Baghdad are considered the most likely to experience violence during or after the voting because of bitter battles for control of the land and resources and continuing insurgent activity.
In northern Nineveh province, where Kurds dominate the provincial council, Sunni Arabs who sat out the last vote are expected to make a strong showing because of their large population. A Kurdish loss of control could aggravate tensions in Nineveh, where violence has increased in recent months even as other areas of the country enjoy relative stability.
Arkan Jassim, a 25-year-old policeman, said he had cast his ballot Wednesday for a candidate on the Sunni Arab nationalist Hadba slate. "I think it will reduce the influence of Kurds," Jassim said, reflecting the ethnic tensions in Nineveh.
Jassim Mohammed, a spokesman for the Electoral Commission in Nineveh, said turnout among special voters there was 85%.
In southern provinces, the battle lines are drawn among Shiite parties vying for influence in oil-rich Basra and other Shiite-majority areas. Last year in March, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki launched a military offensive in Basra against militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Maliki is hoping his Islamic Dawa Party will reap the benefits of that offensive with a win over the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- a victory that would bode well for him in national elections this year.
At a polling site for police in Basra, officer Maitham Hasan said he had selected a Dawa candidate. "I voted for the slate that made Basra safe from criminals," Hasan said.
Salman Jassim, a headmaster hospitalized in Basra, agreed. Maliki "restored security to Basra after the hegemony of the armed groups," he said.
Another patient, who did not want his name published, said he had backed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. "I feel they are better than others," he said.
In Diyala province north of Baghdad, where the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq remains active, participation was more than 95% among security forces, said Maj. Ghalib Hamdi, a provincial police spokesman. Hamdi said he had voted for a secular candidate. Capt. Ahmed Abdul Majeed, a policeman in the provincial capital, Baqubah, said he also supported a secular candidate.
"I believe he is a patriotic personality who thinks seriously and transcends sectarianism," Majeed said.
Provisional results are expected about three days after the polls close, but final results verified by international observers are not expected until late next month.
Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad and special correspondents in Basra and in Anbar and Nineveh provinces contributed to this report.