BAGHDAD -- Iraq held its first election since the withdrawal of American troops, under security so tight on Saturday that the only way for many voters to reach polling stations was to walk. But the election, for local councils, was carried out largely free of violence, even as apathy prevailed among many Iraqis who questioned what benefits they have received from a young democracy still marred by political dysfunction, corruption and violence.
"I will not be fooled again," said Haider al-Mutairy, 34, a lawyer in Babil Province, who said he would not vote, reflecting Iraqis' widespread disenchantment with political leaders. "Nothing changed after I participated in the last elections. My street is still broken and filled with dirt, the electricity and water is still bad, and the terrorists are doing whatever they want and escaping from the jails."
Many other Iraqis did vote, and showed off their fingers, stained with purple ink, as proof.
"It's my duty to come here," said Faris Zaki, who voted in central Baghdad and brought his young daughter despite the threat of violence that had escalated in the weeks before the election. "I'm not afraid," he said. "God is here."
In many cities, roads were closed to prevent car bombs and suicide attacks, a particular worry as Al Qaeda in Iraq has been resurgent in recent months. Across Baghdad, streets normally choked with traffic became playgrounds for young boys. With the polls closed, no deaths had been reported, although a handful of people were wounded in explosions and mortar attacks near polling centers in Hilla, in the Shiite-dominated south; in largely Sunni areas near Tikrit and Samarra, north of Baghdad; and in Diyala Province, where power is contested by Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The results of the election are mostly regarded in symbolic terms by an international community nervously waiting to see if Iraq can keep voters safe and prevent fraud. But it could have far-reaching implications for Iraq's political direction because it is a test of the support at the grass-roots level for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his Shiite Islamist party.
A strong showing for his party could embolden Mr. Maliki to expand his hold on the levers of power, further alienate his Sunni Muslim rivals by moving toward a majority government dominated by fellow Shiites and propel him to a third term as prime minister next year.
The vote for local representatives, in which 8,138 candidates competed for 447 seats in provincial councils, is an important barometer of the standing of the political elite ahead of the parliamentary elections because local candidates are affiliated with the national parties. By winning at the local level, national parties can control provincial governments and deepen their power bases ahead of next year's vote.
"The provincial elections are like the preseason," said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "They gauge the viability of the parties, and the alliance configurations."
Analysts said they expected Mr. Maliki's coalition, called State of Law, to perform well in the provincial elections, whose results will be released in the coming days by Iraq's electoral commission. With sectarian tensions on the rise in Iraq, partly over fears of victory by Sunni rebels aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq in the Syrian civil war, Mr. Maliki's popularity among Iraq's Shiite majority has increased.
"I think the Shiite fears created by the Syrian revolution and rise of Sunni Islamists in the region will support the rationale for a strongman and Shiite guardian," Mr. Mardini said.
Mr. Maliki, whose consolidation of power over the security forces and the judiciary has alarmed Western officials, presides over an unwieldy power-sharing government devised to give meaningful voices to Iraq's minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims. But that arrangement has led to political paralysis, and Mr. Maliki has indicated he may push to form a majority government dominated by Shiite Muslims.
"Just as the results of the 2009 provincial elections bolstered some parties and largely struck down others, today's results could prove whether or not Maliki's State of Law party is able to garner the support needed to become the keystone of a majority government, or could suggest that Iraqi politics is headed in another direction," said Maria Fantappie, the Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Maliki promised the election would be free and fair. "Whoever says that there might be some kind of fraud in the elections, he either doesn't want this election to succeed or he is afraid that it will fail," Mr. Maliki said.
Disenchantment among Iraq's Sunni minority, which ruled Iraq until the American invasion upended the political order, is on the rise. The postponement of the vote in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, which have been riven by antigovernment protests in recent months, only exacerbated the feelings of Sunnis that they lack a meaningful role in Iraq's power structure.
The government delayed the vote over fears of terrorist attacks. "We were planning to vote and participate like other Iraqis," said Hamza Jasim, 40, who lives in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh. "This decision makes us feel more isolated, and more fearful and suspicious about the motives of this sectarian government."
Sunnis could vote in other areas of the country, and the voice over the loudspeaker at one Sunni mosque in Baghdad exhorted them to do so, saying "it is a duty of every Muslim."
In the weeks before the election, attacks took place regularly, and candidates were assassinated at an alarming rate. For some, showing up to vote was a statement of resiliency.
"This is the way to change things for the better," said Suaad Allah, 45, who lives in Diyala. "This is the democracy we didn't have before, and we must challenge those terrorist groups."
Duraid Adnan and Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Hilla, Diyala and Nineveh Provinces.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.