Iraqis hold general election
Polling stations across Iraq have opened, amid tight security, for voters to elect 325 parliamentary members.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki called on voters to turn out in large numbers, saying that participation would boost democracy.
Despite extra security measures to prevent violence, at least 17 people died in two separate blasts in Baghdad.
The border with Iran has been closed, thousands of troops deployed, and vehicle movement has been banned.
The parliamentary election is the second since the 2003 invasion which led to the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The election is taking place against a backdrop of hugely reduced violence, with casualty figures among civilians, Iraqi forces and US troops significantly lower than in recent years.
But hundreds of people are still being killed each month, corruption is high and the provision of basic services such as electricity is still sporadic.
In the latest violence, 12 people were killed and eight injured when an explosion destroyed a residential building in northern Baghdad, officials said, shortly after another blast in the city killed five others.
Sporadic mortar fire could be heard across the city after polls opened at 0400 GMT, and there were also reports of mortar rounds being fired in Salahuddin province.
Islamic militants had pledged to disrupt the voting process with attacks – a group affiliated to al-Qaeda distributed leaflets in Baghdad warning people not to go to the polls.
A vast operation, involving more than half-a-million members of Iraq’s combined security forces, has been put in place to try to prevent attackers from disrupting the election.
The previous election, in 2005, saw Mr Maliki become prime minister with Shia Muslim parties dominating the legislature.
President Jalal Talabani, seeking another term, said: “This election marks another step in the march of our democracy – and also a test.”
He was among the first to vote on Sunday in the Kurdish city of Sulamaniyah.
Iraq’s last elections were in February 2009, when voters chose local representatives.
In a rare public appearance, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, speaking in neighbouring Iran, urged Iraqis to vote and to reject violence.
Against that backdrop, 19 million Iraqi eligible to vote are electing 325 members of parliament.
Polls will close at 1400 GMT unless voting hours are extended.
Some 200,000 security personnel are on duty to ensure the day goes smoothly.
In his TV address, Mr Maliki urged Iraqis not to opt out of the democratic process.
“I call upon you to benefit from democracy with consciousness… you have to go to the ballots and take part in the elections actively,” he said.
“I also call upon you to choose well the one you choose for the next mission. The upcoming stage will be important and the one who you will choose will remain in power for four years.”
The elections are being seen as a crucial test for Iraq’s national reconciliation process ahead of a planned US military withdrawal in stages.
Correspondents say Prime Minister Maliki looks likely to retain power at the head of his Shia-led coalition.
The key will be whether Mr Maliki can bring Iraq’s embittered Sunni minority into his government and make them feel they have a stake in Iraq’s political future again.
Expatriate votes cast in Jordan and Syria could play a deciding role in a tight election race, counting for around 10 seats in the 325-member parliament, which will form the next government.
They began voting on Friday, with security forces, detainees and hospital patients able to vote on Thursday.
There was a reportedly high turnout, with estimates suggesting 800,000 people cast ballots.
There has been pre-election violence in Iraq and insurgents have vowed to disrupt the poll.
Travel around the country has been restricted and the authorities have cancelled all leave for security services.