Iraqis have voted in provincial elections amid tight security, the first vote since the U.S. military withdrawal in late 2011.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq at a polling station in Baghdad that "the political and democratic process is forging ahead despite all obstacles."
"Today were are laying a new strong building block at the developing edifice of the Iraqi state," Maliki said as Iraqis cast ballots on April 20. "By electing strong, effective, and harmonious provincial councils, we complete the construction of a fundamental pillar in a state that now adopts devolution rather than centralization."
Nearly 14 million Iraqis were eligible to pick from among more than 8,000 candidates running for 378 seats on provincial councils.
After polls closed, Reuters news agency quoted election authorities as saying 50 percent of eligible voters took part in the poll -- a similar rate to the last vote for provincial councils in 2009.
Official preliminary results are not expected for several days.
The results will not directly affect Iraq's national leadership.
But the vote will be an important test of support for Iraq's various political blocs heading into the 2014 parliamentary elections.
By early afternoon, the United Nations’ special representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, said the voting had been going smoothly.
There were reports of scattered violence during the voting.
Security cordons were set up around polling places, while only authorized vehicles were allowed on the streets in large cities.
In the past week, dozens of people have been killed in bombings and at least 14 candidates were killed in the run-up to the vote.
On election day, Maliki urged people to vote in defiance of perceived threats to security.
"Sunni Muslims or Shi’a, Arabs or Kurds, Iraqis love each other," the prime minister said. "However, some people using a sectarian discourse might have incited ignorant elements from one community or another to carry out vengeful acts in the interests of schemes and plans hatched by foreign forces and intelligence agencies for the region as a whole and Iraqi in particular."
There was no voting in the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, which will hold local elections in September, or in the ethnically disputed province of Kirkuk.
Officials delayed voting in the largely Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, citing security concerns.
"We will hear from the Ministry of Education whether it will be able to vacate schools [to be used as polling centers] by May 18," Maliki said. "Otherwise, we will try to bring the date of the elections closer, and if not we will hold the elections after the end of the term exams."
Members of the police and military cast their ballots last week so that they could focus on securing the voting process.
With additional reporting by AP and AFP