(Recasts after polls open, adds Maliki quotes, paragraphs 1-8)
By Ned Parker and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, April 30 (Reuters) - Iraqis headed to the polls on Wednesday in their first national election since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seeking a third term amid rising violence.
Iraq's western province of Anbar is torn by fighting as Sunni Muslim militants battle the Iraqi military. Its economy is struggling and Maliki faces criticism that he is aggravating sectarian splits and trying to consolidate power.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT), with a vehicle curfew imposed on the streets of Baghdad. Voters will choose from among 9,012 candidates and the parliamentary election will effectively serve as a referendum on Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim who has governed for eight years.
Maliki was among the first to cast a vote at a hotel next to the heavily fortified Green Zone enclave where the government is based. He urged people to follow suit despite security threats.
"I call upon the Iraqi people to head in large numbers to the ballot boxes to send a message of deterrence and a slap to the face of terrorism," Maliki told reporters.
Political analysts say no party is likely to win a majority in the 328-seat parliament. Forming a government may be hard even if Maliki's State of Law alliance wins the most seats as expected, although he was confident of another victory.
"Definitely our expectations are high," he said.
"Our victory is confirmed but we are still talking about how big this victory will be," Maliki said. Polls close at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).
Maliki faces challenges from Shi'ite and Sunni rivals and has portrayed himself as his majority Shi'ite community's defender against the Sunni, al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"Is ISIL and al Qaeda capable of reaching the target for (which) they were established ... bringing down Baghdad and the other provinces and destroying the holy shrines? ... I say no," Maliki said earlier this week.
"ISIL is over, but its pockets still exist and we will keep chasing them and the coming few days will witness major developments," he said.
STREET BATTLES, SUICIDE BOMBERS
Iraqi forces are locked in a four-month fight for the Anbar cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Troops surround Fallujah and are waging street battles in Ramadi.
The war has displaced an estimated 420,000 people. The Iraqi electoral commission acknowledges it can only hold the election in 70 percent of Anbar, not counting Fallujah. Fighting has also erupted in rural areas around Baghdad, where Iraqi troops, in tandem with Shi'ite militia volunteers, are battling ISIL.
On Monday, 50 people were killed in attacks around Iraq, with some suicide bombers dressed in police and army uniforms. The burden falls particularly hard on Iraq's Sunni population, who are viewed with suspicion by the mostly Shi'ite Iraqi security forces and terrorized by the ISIL.
Iraq's Sunni political leaders paint Maliki as an authoritarian ruler who wants to destroy their community. His main Sunni rival, parliamentary speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, said Sunnis had suffered from "terrorism and militias" under Maliki.
"Our people haven't harvested the national partnership, only the rattle of weapons, the language of blood, the education of revenge, the sectarian inciting, the displaced people," Nujaifi told supporters recently.
He worried that a third term for Maliki would lead to "massacres committed against innocent people".
The period ahead will be a test of Iraq's democracy. It took nine months to seat a government after the last national election in 2010, a vote that took place with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers still in Iraq.
Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties are outspoken about their wish for Maliki to go, but he is still expected to win more votes than them.
Some warn that forming a new government could take a year. Negotiations will take place while intense fighting rages in Anbar and around the edges of Baghdad, adding more instability to the process.
In contrast to earlier national unity governments, Maliki is expected to seek a stronger coalition built around a majority government.
Some voters still love Maliki and see him as their saviour.
"He's the man for tough jobs," said Safadin Murib, a government employee from Hilla, south of Baghdad.
Others have lost faith in the whole political process.
"I haven't benefited from the previous elections and am not expecting to benefit now," said Thamir Muhammad Jassim, a shopkeeper in Hilla. (Additional reporting by Raheem Salman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Paul Tait)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.