BAGHDAD - Iraqis vote on Saturday in a key test of political stability and security in the country’s first elections since US troops withdrew at the end of 2011.

The provincial elections, the first since parliamentary polls in 2010, will be a gauge of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s popularity as he spars with several of his erstwhile partners in government who accuse him of a consolidating power and reneging on agreements.

The country’s Sunni Arab minority, meanwhile, has been demonstrating for months to decry the alleged targeting of their community by the Shia-led authorities.

That has further increased sectarian tensions in a country that fought a bloody communal conflict which left tens of thousands dead in 2006 and 2007, and has seen a recent uptick in violence.

Two of the country’s 18 provinces will not even be voting in the polls because authorities say security in those Sunni-majority areas cannot be guaranteed, and 14 candidates have been assassinated across the country.

Voters in four more provinces will also miss out - those in the northern province of Kirkuk and in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

In Kirkuk, elections are indefinitely on hold because of disagreement between various political and ethnic groups in the province, which is claimed by both Kurdistan and the federal government.

Meanwhile, bombings in Iraq, including one against an MP’s convoy, killed four people and wounded 18 on Wednesday, just days ahead of the country’s first elections since US troops departed, officials said.

In the deadliest attack, a car bomb exploded near an army checkpoint in Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, killing two people and wounding six, while another car bomb in the Jihad area of south Baghdad killed at least one person and wounded six, an interior ministry official and medical sources said.

And in Ramadi, a magnetic “sticky bomb” killed a secondary school teacher, a police officer and a doctor said.

A roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying an MP from the secular, Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc in Madain, south of Baghdad, wounding four people but not the politician, while a “sticky bomb” wounded two people in Mansur in west Baghdad, the ministry official and medical sources said.

An estimated 13.5 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for more than 8,000 candidates standing in Saturday’s provincial elections, with 378 seats being contested.

Iraqi forces are solely responsible for polling security, the first time they have been in charge without support from American or other international forces during elections since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

US forces eventually withdrew from Iraq in December 2011.

The elections are to be held amid a spike in violence. Attacks have killed more than 200 people each month so far this year, compared to tolls well below that figure for the last three months of 2012, according to AFP figures.

While violence has fallen significantly from the height of Iraq’s sectarian war, the country still faces significant security challenges, mainly from Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda who carry out attacks in a bid to undermine confidence in the Shia-led government.