BAGHDAD (AP) — Campaigning officially kicked off Tuesday for Iraq's first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country more than two years ago, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeking a new term at a time of escalating sectarian violence.
The United Nations appealed for national unity to help reduce sectarian violence ahead of the April 30 elections. Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish candidates are all vying for 328 assembly seats in the deeply divided country, plagued by violence and corruption.
The past year has seen violence swell, with the Sunni Muslim minority embittered over what it sees as marginalization by al-Maliki's Shiite-led government. The violence threatens to disrupt voting in parts of mainly Sunni Anbar province, possibly furthering the community's disenfranchisement.
When Sunni protests were broken up last year, it prompted a spiral of attacks by Sunni militants on the military and police. Earlier this year, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran Fallujah, one of the country's biggest Sunni cities, and parts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province — and security forces are still battling to wrest them back.
In 2013, more than 8,800 people were killed in violence, the highest toll since the worst of Iraq's sectarian bloodshed began to subside in 2007. The trend has continued this year.
In a statement Tuesday, the United Nations Mission to Iraq said 592 Iraqis — including 108 members of the security forces — were killed in March. The capital, Baghdad, was the worst affected with 180 people killed.
The two previous months each saw more than 700 dead. The counts from January through March do not include casualties of violence and fighting in Anbar province, where the campaign to retake Fallujah is ongoing.
"With election day getting nearer, I once again stress the need for unity and a holistic approach to violence and terrorist threat in Iraq," U.N. mission chief Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. He called on Iraqi political leaders to resort to dialogue in order to resolve disputes.
Al-Maliki is eyeing a third term, even as he is faces criticism by opponents — including influential Shiite figures who accuse him of failing to provide security and basic services to the nation.
As the election campaign kicked off Tuesday, Iraqi towns and cities were flooded with posters of the candidates for parliament seats on main streets and intersections.
Maliki's State of Law bloc is likely to secure the largest single number of seats in the polls, but he will still need the support of other Shiite parties and the Kurds in order to secure the second term.
Al-Maliki's situation seems more difficult now because he has acquired more political enemies among Shiite and Kurdish factions since the 2010 elections.
Once the election results are announced, leaders of winning blocs start extensive meetings in order to form a broad coalition that would make the biggest bloc in the new parliament. This biggest bloc would have the right to name the new prime minister among its ranks.
There are no apparent competitors to al-Maliki right now. The only real completion al-Maliki ever faced was from secular Shiite politician Ayad Allawi, but Allawi's chances are much less now because his Iraqiya bloc is deeply fragmented.
In the 2010 election, Allawi's Iraqiya — which was backed by Sunnis — won the most seats, but no group won an outright majority. Shiite parties joined forces and formed the largest political bloc in parliament, setting the stage for Allawi to be outmaneuvered and al-Maliki to be chosen for a second term.
At the time, the United States still had a military presence on the ground and wielded influence with Sunnis, including in Anbar. American forces left in late 2011 after failing to secure a defense agreement with the Maliki government — and the country started spiraling out of control as insurgents returned.
If the fighting in Anbar province goes on, Iraqi military officials say it would be impossible to hold elections in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. But they hint the vote could perhaps be held on the city's outskirts. As many as a third of the province's cities might be affected, election officials say.
The exclusion of some Sunni cities from the nationwide election could deepen Sunni fears of being marginalized by the Shiite majority, which was long oppressed under Saddam's rule and rose to power after he was toppled by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
This could lead to a further feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis already complaining or up in arms about the Maliki government and what they perceive as Shiite domination of the administration.
The militants took control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in late December after security forces arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges.
Violence showed no signs of abatement.
On Tuesday, police said a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car in to a convoy of army vehicles in Tikrit city, killing five soldiers and wounding 11 other. Tikrit is 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
Hours later, gunmen sprayed an army checkpoint with bullets, killing two soldiers in the northern city of Mosul, the officials said. Elsewhere in Mosul, a gunman shot dead a soldier who was manning another checkpoint.
Medics confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.