Unshaken by the latest surge in violence, Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and attacks to vote Wednesday in key elections for a new parliament amid a massive security operation as the country slides deeper into sectarian strife.

A roadside bomb killed two women as they walked to a polling station in the small Iraqi town of Dibis near Kirkuk, a turbulent city some 290 km (180 miles) north of Baghdad. Another bomb in Dibis targeted an army patrol, wounding five soldiers, according to Sarhad Qadir, a senior police officer in the area.

In central Baghdad, police and army manned checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart, while pickup trucks with machine guns perched on top roamed the streets. Much of the city looked deserted without the normal traffic congestion that Baghdad is notorious for. Most stores were closed.

In Baghdad’s mostly Shiite Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on Sunni militants, elite counterterrorism forces were deployed and helicopters hovered above the sprawling area. Buses were used to ferry voters to polling centers. Authorities also closed Iraq’s airspace for the elections, and slapped a ban on vehicles to reduce the threat of car bombings.

Army and police personnel voted on Monday so they could be freed Wednesday to provide security for the rest of voters. Iraqi expatriates in about 20 countries cast their ballots on Sunday and Monday.

Voters are being subjected to multiple searches before they are allowed inside polling centers. Streets leading to the centers are blocked by police trucks and barbed wire.

“I decided to go and vote early while it’s safe. Crowds attract attacks,” said Azhar Mohammed as she and her husband approached a polling station in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Karadah district. The 37-year-old woman in mourning black had just lost a brother, a soldier, killed last week in the northern city of Mosul.

“There has been a big failure in the way the country has been run and I think it is time to elect new people.”

Not far from where Mohammed was, Essam Shukr broke into tears as he remembered a son killed in a suicide bombing in Karadah last month. “I hope this election takes us to the shores of safety,” said the 72-year-old Shukr.“We want a better life for our sons and grandchildren who cannot even go to playing areas or amusement parks because of the bad security situation. We want a better life for all Iraqis.”

A Shiite party led by Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister of eight years, is expected to win the most seats in Wednesday’s election but is unlikely to win a majority. His “State of Law” party had 89 seats in the outgoing parliament, the largest number by any single bloc.

But al Maliki will have to cobble together a coalition if he is to retain his job for a third four-year term, a tough task given the criticism he has been under from his onetime Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish allies. Initial results from Wednesday’s vote are expected to start trickling out next week but the outcome will not be known for several more weeks.

Al Maliki, a Shiite, rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other’s communities.AP