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BAGHDAD: Iraqis were voting on Sunday in a parliamentary election with a low turnout, after many lost faith in the democratic system brought in by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The established, Shia-dominated ruling elite whose most powerful parties have armed wings is expected to sweep the vote, with the movement led by populist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference and whose main rivals are Iran-allied Shia groups, seen emerging as parliament's biggest faction.

Such a result would not dramatically alter the balance of power in Iraq or the wider Middle East, say Iraqi officials, foreign diplomats and analysts, but for Iraqis it could mean that a former insurgency leader and conservative Islamist could increase his sway over the government.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, a polling station set up in a girls' school saw a slow but steady trickle of voters. Election volunteer Hamid Majid, 24, said he had voted for his old school teacher, a candidate for the Sadrists.

"She educated many of us in the area so all the young people are voting for her. It's the time for the Sadrist Movement. The people are with them," Majid said. Two electoral commission officials told Reuters that nationwide turnout of eligible voters was 19 percent by midday. Turnout was 44.5 percent in the last election in 2018. Polls close at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).

The election is being held several months early under a new law designed to help independent candidates - a response to mass anti-government protests two years ago. High school teacher Abdul Ameer Hassan al-Saadi said he boycotted the election.

"I lost my 17-year-old son Hussain after he got killed by a tear gas canister fired by police during Baghdad protests," said al-Saadi, whose house is close to a polling station in the mainly Shia Baghdad district of Karrada.

"I will not vote for killers and corrupt politicians because the wound inside me and his mother we suffered after losing our boy is still bleeding."

The chief Iraq election observer of the European Union, Viola von Cramon, said the relatively low turnout means a lot.

"This is a clear, of course a political signal and one can only hope that it will be heard by the politicians and by the political elite of Iraq," she told reporters.

FOREIGN INFLUENCE

Nonetheless, some Iraqis were keen to vote in what is Iraq's fifth parliamentary vote since 2003 - and are hopeful of change. In the northern city of Kirkuk, Abu Abdullah said he arrived to vote an hour before polling stations opened.

"We expect the situation to improve significantly." he said.

At least 167 parties and more than 3,200 candidates are competing for parliament's 329 seats, according to the election commission. Iraqi elections are often followed by protracted talks over a president, a prime minister and a cabinet.

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