By Patrick Markey
BAGHDAD, April 20 (Reuters) - A dozen small bombs exploded and mortar rounds landed near polling centres in Iraq on Saturday, wounding at least four people during voting in the country's first provincial elections since the departure of U.S. troops.
Two mortar rounds injured three voters and a policeman at a school used as a voting centre in Latifiya, south of Baghdad, soon after the start of the election that will measure parties' political strength before parliamentary elections in 2014.
A local al-Qaeda wing and Sunni Islamists have stepped up their campaign this year to undermine the Shi'ite-led government and stoke confrontation among the country's combustible sectarian and ethnic mix.
Bombs exploded in the northern towns of Tuz Khurmato, Tikrit and Samarra and six mortar rounds also landed in a town near the southern city of Hilla, without causing any injuries, police said.
Iraqi politics are deeply split along sectarian lines with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government mired in crisis over how to share power between majority Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds who run their own autonomous enclave.
For Maliki, a strong showing by his Shi'ite State of Law alliance may open the way to a third term in 2014 elections when he has hinted at plans to abandon Iraq's unwieldy power-sharing deal to form a majority government.
Sunni rivals, deeply divided over how to work with his government, and the premier's Shi'ite rivals, anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the ISCI movement, will look to chip away at Maliki's sway over provincial councils.
Security was tight across Iraq with more than 8,000 hopefuls running for nearly 450 seats on provincial councils which select local governors. More than a dozen candidates, mostly Sunnis, were killed during campaigning.
Turnout at polling stations in Baghdad, and cities such as Basra, Tikrit and Baquba appeared light, according to Reuters reporters. In Baghdad, mostly empty after the government imposed a vehicle curfew, young men played football along a main road on the banks of the River Tigris.
Many voters appeared caught between apathy and resignation about how much the local ballot would change their lives.
"People are not patient, they were not ready for how quickly we came to democracy. They thought everything would change in one election. We still need time, maybe we need three or four more elections," said Ahmed Abdel Hameed, voting in Baghdad.
Most Iraqis are frustrated with insecurity, unemployment, rife corruption and the lack of basic services a decade after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and helped trigger sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands in 2006-2007.
Violence has eased since then but insurgents are still capable of inflicting major damage and casualties. Attacks on a Sunni and a Shi'ite mosque on Friday killed at least eight. A suicide bomber had killed 32 people in a blast at a cafe in a mostly Sunni neighbourhood in Baghdad a day before.
Since U.S. troops left in December 2011, Iraqi politics has been paralysed by infighting over power-sharing agreements with Maliki's rivals accusing the Shi'ite premier of consolidating power at the expense of Sunni and Kurdish partners.
"Overall the elections are likely to see Iraq stumble further along the trajectory on which is has already been headed for some time: to stratified, sectarian politics," Eurasia Group analyst Crispin Hawes wrote in a report.
Three provinces in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, run by ethnic Kurds since 1991, and the ethnically mixed, disputed city of Kirkuk, will not be voting on Saturday.
Washington weighed into the election process, asking the government not to alienate Sunni voters after voting was postponed in two mostly Sunni provinces because local officials warned they could not provide security there.
Since December, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslim protesters have taken to the streets each week to demonstrate against what they say is the marginalisation of their minority sect.
Election authorities say suspended voting in Anbar and Nineweh provinces may go ahead in a month.
But ten years after the invasion, many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been sidelined by the country's majority Shi'ite leadership and discriminated against by Iraqi security forces and tough anti-terrorism laws.
The Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance has struggled to stay united with its leadership split over how to manage relations with Maliki. Those divisions are likely to play out in the provincial election results.
"Suspending elections was the coup de grace for the demonstrations. We've lost everything," said Maitham Jalal, a college student in Anbar province. "Elections are a legitimate right which was taken away by the government without any fear." (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad, and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Editing by Louise Ireland)