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BAGHDAD: Iraq closed its airspace and land border crossings on Sunday as voters went to the polls to elect a parliament that many hope will bring much-needed reforms after decades of conflict and mismanagement.

The vote was supposed to take place next year but was brought forward in response to a popular uprising in the capital Baghdad and the southern provinces in late 2019. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the endemic corruption, poor services and rising unemployment. They were met with deadly force by security forces who fired live ammunition and tear gas. More than 600 people were killed and thousands injured in just a few months.

Although the authorities gave in and called early elections, the death toll and crackdown prompted many young activists and demonstrators who took part in the protests to later call for a boycott of the elections.

A number of kidnappings and targeted assassinations that killed more than 35 people have deterred many from participating.

A total of 3,449 candidates are fighting for 329 seats in the general election, which will be the sixth since the fall of Saddam Hussein following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

More than 250,000 security guards across the country were tasked with protecting the voice. Soldiers, police and anti-terrorist forces swarmed in front of the polling stations, some of which were surrounded by barbed wire. Voters were scanned and searched before going to vote.

Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi urged Iraqis to vote in the face of widespread apathy and skepticism on the part of many.

“Go out there and choose and change your reality for the good of Iraq and your future,” Al-Kadhimi said, repeating it three times after casting his vote at a school in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to foreign embassies and governments are offices.

“To those who hesitate, put your trust in God and choose those who you think fit,” he added, reflecting on concerns about low turnout. “This is our chance for reform.”

In the 2018 elections, only 44 percent of eligible voters cast their vote, a record low. The results have been controversial on many occasions. There are concerns about a similar or even lower turnout.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric and a widely respected authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, called for a large turnout, saying that the elections are still the best way for Iraqis to help shape the future of their country.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr cast his vote, surrounded by local journalists. Al-Sadr won a majority of the seats in the 2018 elections.

A close race is expected between the Al-Sadr Sairoun list and the Fatah alliance, led by paramilitary leader Hadi Al-Ameri, who finished second in the last election.

The Fatah Alliance consists of parties associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly pro-Iranian Shiite militias that became known during the war against the extremist Sunni Daesh group. It includes some of the toughest pro-Iranian factions, such as the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia. Al-Sadr, a black turbaned nationalist and populist leader, is also close to Iran but publicly opposes its political influence.

The elections are the first since the fall of Saddam to be held without a curfew, reflecting the significantly improved security situation in the country for decades following the defeat of ISIS in 2017.

As a security precaution, Iraq has closed its airspace and increased its air force from Saturday night to Monday morning.

For the first time, the elections will take place on Sunday under a new electoral law that divides Iraq into smaller constituencies – another demand from activists who participated in the 2019 protests – and allows for more independent candidates.

A UN Security Council resolution passed earlier this year authorized an expanded team to oversee the elections. There will be up to 600 international observers on site, including 150 from the United Nations.

Iraq is also introducing biometric cards for voters for the first time. In order to prevent misuse of electronic voter cards, they will be deactivated 72 hours after each person has voted to avoid double voting.

But despite all these measures, there are still allegations of vote buying, intimidation and manipulation.

The head of the Iraqi election commission has announced that the first election results will be announced within 24 hours.

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