Voters turned out in large numbers on Sunday in Iraq's second parliamentary election since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 amid widespread violence which claimed at least 24 lives.

At least 12 persons were killed when an explosion destroyed a residential building in Baghdad soon after polls opened at 7 a.m. local time. Five more were killed in another blast in the capital.

Another seven died in other parts of the country. Violence was reported from Fallujah where two bombs went off close to a polling station. Nearly 6,200 candidates, including 1,718 women, are vying for a place in Iraq's now expanded 325-member Parliament. With security a major threat, authorities deployed nearly 2,00,000 personnel in an effort to keep a lid on violence.

A tight race is expected in the hotly contested elections in which five major formations, mirroring the country's ethnic and sectarian fault lines, are pitted against each other. The State of Law Coalition, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is among the frontrunners. This formation had done well, especially in the southern Shia strongholds, during the provincial council elections held in January 2009. The Prime Minister during that year was credited with improving the general state of security. However, spiralling violence since the second half of 2009 and lack of basic services may now have dented his party's appeal.

Another Shia formation that has a large support base rivalling Mr. Maliki's coalition is the Iraqi National Alliance. The Alliance, which appears to have a pro-Iran slant, includes heavyweights such as Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and the largest Shia party in Iraq. Analysts point out that Mr. Hakim and his followers have recently begun to stress the need for an early exit of U.S. troops from Iraq. Moqtada Al-Sadr, a leading critic of the occupation, is also part of this coalition. His presence imparts a prominent non-sectarian accent to the Alliance. In a Saturday interview aired by the Iran-based Al Alam television, Mr. Al Sadr said: “I want the Iraqi to serve the Iraqi, whether he is a Kurd, a Shia, a Turkoman or a Sunni or a member of any other Iraqi sect, whether a minority or a majority one.” Observers say that an alliance between Mr. Maliki's coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance is a post-poll possibility, as neither of the two formations, on their own, may muster a simple majority in Sunday's poll.

The former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi heads the secular Iraqiya List, which is another major formation participating in the polls. Mr. Allawi's bloc, having wide cross-sectarian support also has the backing of Sunni Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi.

Iraq's Kurdish community — concentrated in northern Iraq — is expected to cast its vote either for Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party or President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which are part of a common alliance. This bloc has 53 seats in the current 275-member Parliament. The Iraqi Accordance Front, which a Sunni dominated formation, having 44 seats in the current Parliament, is also contesting the polls.

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