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By Peter Graff
BAGHDAD, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Soldiers, police, prisoners and displaced people began early voting on Wednesday ahead of Saturday's provincial election in Iraq, which will determine the political landscape across the country as U.S. forces withdraw.
The election is the first in Iraq since 2005, and holding it peacefully will be a test of Iraq's tenuous stability as it emerges from years of sectarian war.
In the Shi'ite south, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is hoping to win support in provinces long dominated by large rival parties. In other parts of the country, Sunni Arabs, many of whom boycotted the last provincial poll, are seeking a bigger share of provincial power.
Thursday's early round of special voting was called to ensure that soldiers and police can all be on duty for a massive security operation during the main election on Saturday, when vehicles will be banned from the streets.
"This is our challenge to every terrorist and to everyone opposed," soldier Abed Khalaf said at a polling station in the northern city of Kirkuk, where the main poll has been delayed indefinitely but troops from other parts of Iraq can vote.
"We came here today and we are not afraid, because an honest person should not hide his head from these groups."
The commander in the area, Lieutenant Colonel Khalil Kamal al-Zobaie, said his men were happy to be voting: "This day is like a wedding for all the army."
In other parts of Iraq there were some signs of confusion.
At the Ma'qal Prison in the southern city of Basra, fights broke out between guards and journalists brought inside to film the voting. Several photographers were beaten by guards who accused them of taking pictures that showed prisoners' faces.
Tens of thousands of displaced people are also registered for early voting, although they make up only a fraction of up to four million Iraqis believed to have fled abroad or to other parts of Iraq during years of fighting.
TEST AS US WITHDRAWS
Holding a successful election is an important test of the ability of Iraqi troops to keep the peace as 140,000 U.S. troops begin to leave. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to speed up the pace of withdrawal after his predecessor George W. Bush promised to pull out the troops by the end of 2011.
Iraqis have embraced the voting enthusiastically. Some 14,400 candidates, including nearly 4,000 women, have registered to fight 440 provincial council seats. Campaign posters are plastered all over the concrete blast walls that have sprung up throughout the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The election campaign so far has not seen a surge in violence feared by U.S. and Iraqi commanders. At least two candidates were assassinated, but overall attacks have remained at among the lowest levels since the war began.
The elections are an important test for Maliki, who himself faces the voters in national elections due later this year.
Once seen as a weak leader, the prime minister strengthened his hand over the past year after cracking down on militias and winning the U.S. commitment to withdraw within three years. But he still has only a limited power base in the provinces.
His Shi'ite rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, control nearly all of the provinces in the south and are hoping to tighten their grip. Another potent Shi'ite group, followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are on the back foot after Maliki's troops defeated their militia last year.
U.S. commanders also hope the election can reduce violence in the volatile north of the county, where Kurds have wielded power and Sunni Arabs have felt excluded since many Sunni Arabs boycotted the last provincial poll in 2005.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Basra and a Reuters correspondent in Kirkuk; Editing by Giles Elgood)