* Kids play football in streets
* Vehicle bans lifted as security holds
* Voters hope for change and peace
By Wisam Mohammed and Michael Christie
BAGHDAD, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Protected by barbed wire and rings of police, Iraqis voted enthusiastically on Saturday in a provincial poll they hope will solidify the war-battered country’s fragile security gains.
Iraq’s first election since 2005 will pick local councils in 14 of its 18 provinces and show whether Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining peace as U.S. troops begin to withdraw, almost six years after the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is looking to use the election to build his own power base in the provinces before national polls later this year. Sunni Arab groups who boycotted the last provincial polls are hoping to win a share of local power.
There was something of a holiday atmosphere in many parts of the country. In normally traffic-choked Baghdad, children took advantage of a ban on cars to play soccer in the streets.
"How can we not vote? All of us here have always complained about being oppressed and not having a leader who represented us. Now is our chance," said Basra voter Abdul Hussein Nuri.
The last election took place amid an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency and was followed by a surge in sectarian slaughter between once dominant Sunni Arabs and majority Shi’ite Muslims.
That violence has dropped dramatically since 2007, and by late afternoon Saturday’s election appeared to have taken place almost entirely without incident. The car ban was lifted early and voting was extended an extra hour to 6:00 p.m. (1500 GMT).
The 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq had patrols on the streets and helicopters in the sky but mostly kept a low profile. A U.S. armoured column was seen weaving down a Baghdad street between children and rocks placed in the road as makeshift soccer goals.
Airports and borders were shut and voters were frisked for suicide bomb vests and scanned for explosive residue.
Three mortar rounds landed in Saddam’s home town Tikrit but no one was hurt. One civilian was shot dead and one wounded in a quarrel with soldiers in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.
"We think one, two or three incidents may happen. We expect it. This country is a newly born democracy," said Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf. Five candidates have been assassinated in the run-up to the election — three of them just two days before the vote. But overall levels of violence have remained low.
"The elections are not boycotted by any major community as has happened in the past," Andrew Gilmour, deputy head of the U.N. mission in Iraq, told Reuters. "Above all it means these councils should be able to deliver a level of services."
Casting his own ballot, Maliki called it a "happy day for all Iraqis" and said signs were that turnout would be high.
15 MILLION VOTERS
Just under 15 million of Iraq’s 28 million people are registered to vote for provincial councils that select powerful regional governors. Three Kurdish provinces will vote separately and the election was indefinitely postponed in Kirkuk to avoid a showdown between Kurds and Arabs vying for control there.
Around 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 council seats after exuberant campaigning. Brightly coloured campaign posters cover the blast walls that divide Iraqi neighbourhoods.
Mobile phones across the country have beeped in unison this week as parties sent last-minute mass campaign text messages.
There were some glitches. Several people said they failed to find their names on voter registration lists and could not vote. One of them was elderly Fadhel al-Shimary, who had walked three km (two miles) to vote in Baghdad’s Palestine Street, stopping every 50 metres to rest in a chair carried by his son.
"I will wait here until the night. I must vote before I die," he said. "Maybe they are trying to steal my vote. But I will not allow it. I am still alive. I am not dead yet."
Maliki, once seen as a weak leader installed by more powerful Shi’ite parties, has seen his stature rise over the past year after a crackdown on militias. He has toured the country in recent weeks campaigning with a law-and-order theme.
"He made it possible for us to go out at night. Now I can take a taxi ride home when I go shopping in the city centre," said teacher Sadiha Karim, who voted for Maliki’s slate in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drove out black-masked militiamen in heavy fighting last year.
In Shi’ite areas, Maliki’s State of Law coalition is taking on the powerful Shi’ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has run most southern provinces since 2005.
In the former heart of the Sunni Islamist insurgency, Anbar in the west, tribal chiefs who helped push out al Qaeda hope to win at the expense of the traditional Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.
Most of the violence has been in the north, where Sunni Arabs were kept from power after boycotting the 2005 elections. Kurds are likely to lose power in the north’s Nineveh province.
But for many Iraqis this election is less about ethnicity or sect than competence. In the dusty town of Khana Sul near the Syrian border, 19-year-old student Jamil Kirtohamo, a member of the Yazidi religious minority, held up the purple-dyed finger that showed he had voted.
"It’s my first time voting and I’m very excited," he said, pointing to a pothole. "We want whoever wins to pave this road." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Aseel Kami, Ahmed Rasheed, Waleed Ibrahim and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad; Missy Ryan in Kerbala; Tim Cocks in Nineveh province, a correspondent in Mosul, Fadhil al-Badrani in Ramadi and Sabah al-Bazee in Tikrit; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Dominic Evans)