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Iraqis begin voting as violence grips a divided country

ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) STORY: Iraqis head to the polls in their first election since US forces withdrew from Iraq three years ago. Voters must choose from among more than 9,000 candidates but the ballot is really being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim who has governed for eight years. He's facing criticism he's aggravating the sectarian splits as he tries to consolidate power. A growing insurgency between Sunni Muslim militants and the military is tearing apart the west of the country. Iraq is experiencing its worst unrest since 2008, with 160 people killed in the past week alone. Security has been heightened ahead of the election, and some voters face multiple searches before being allowed into polling stations. But the Prime Minister, who was among the first to vote, urged Iraqis to do the same despite the security threats. (SOUNDBITE) (ARABIC) IRAQ'S PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI, SA

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