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Dark days for Baghdad on eve of Iraqi elections

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FILE – In this file photo taken Friday, April 25, 2014, smoke rises above campaign posters after a series of bombs that exploded at a campaign rally for a Shiite group in Baghdad, Iraq, ahead of the country’s parliamentary election. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)

FILE – In this file photo taken Friday, April 25, 2014, smoke rises above campaign posters after a series of bombs that exploded at a campaign rally for a Shiite group in Baghdad, Iraq, ahead of the country’s parliamentary election. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)

FILE – In this file photo taken Monday, April 21, 2014, smoke rises after a car bomb attack in Baghdad’s eastern neighborhood of Sadr City, Iraq. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Ali Sadr, File)

FILE – In this file photo taken Saturday, April 26, 2014, burned vehicles remain in the Industrial Stadium a day after a series of bombs exploded in eastern Baghdad, Iraq. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)

FILE – In this file photo taken Saturday, April 26, 2014, a man mourns over the flag-draped coffin of his son during a funeral procession for five militia members of a Shiite group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo, File)

FILE – In this file photo taken Saturday, April 26, 2014, mourners carry the flag-draped coffins of five militia members of a Shiite group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, during their funeral procession in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. As parliamentary elections are held Wednesday, April 30, more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. (AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo, File)

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Blast barrier walls topped with barbed wire snake across the Iraqi capital, encircling government buildings like a fortress and enshrining the separation of neighborhoods increasingly divided by religious sect. Soldiers and policemen brandishing assault rifles and machine guns man checkpoints, partially hidden behind sandbags or staring down from the roofs of Humvees.

As parliamentary elections are held this week more than two years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Baghdad is once again a city gripped by fear and scarred by violence. Many of the city’s 7 million residents avoid roads hit by bombings, fearing a deadly repeat. Most shops now close shortly after sunset, and an overnight curfew that begins at midnight remains in force.

On Monday, suspected Sunni militants struck checkpoints outside polling stations across Baghdad and much of the country, as army and police personnel voted two days before the rest of Iraq’s 22 million registered voters cast their ballots on Wednesday. At least 21 people were killed in the suicide bombings and other attacks.

Despite a surge in violence engulfing the country over the past year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s election coalition is expected to win and propel him to a third, four-year term in office. Al-Maliki’s campaign has cast him as a strong statesman who has kept the country together through tough times, a view rejected by many Sunnis who see him as a sectarian politician determined to marginalize their once-dominant sect.

An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is challenging the authority of the Shiite-led government, waging a campaign of terror on ordinary Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere. The Sunni militants also control parts of the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad and maintain a heavy presence in the north and northeast of the country. Their campaign is fueled by the frustration felt by many Sunni Arabs that they are now being denied government jobs slotted for less qualified Shiites.

Baghdad’s division along sectarian lines, a legacy of the last decade’s Sunni-Shiite bloodletting, is now deeply enshrined and, to hardliners on both sides, is how things should be. Most of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Sunni Baghdadis who fled the capital have yet to come back, finding relative peace abroad in Arab cities like Amman, Dubai and Beirut.

A flood of migrants from the impoverished and mainly Shiite south of the country has altered Baghdad’s demographics. Many Sunnis now complain that what was once a diverse city with entrenched values of religious tolerance is now predominantly Shiite. Mixed neighborhoods are disappearing, and where they do still exist, minority residents complain of harassment and intimidation. Interfaith marriages are now rare among poor Shiites and Sunnis.

Some of the campaign posters for Wednesday’s parliamentary election are promising better days for the city — jobs, security and an end to graft. But many residents don’t believe such promises, instead distrusting politicians as corrupt or inept.

“It is only now that it is election season that we hear from politicians,” said Zeid Ibrahim Ahmed, a 47-year-old Sunni barber from Baghdad’s mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood. “But for four years they failed to do anything useful. The only change we

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