BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's election for its first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's fall began on Monday with Iraqis in hospitals, barracks and prisons voting in a ballot Islamist militants branded as ungodly.
Voting started on a day that U.S. President George W. Bush gave a rare estimate of the number of civilians killed since U.S. troops invaded in 2003, acknowledging that 30,000 civilians had died in the violence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari defended his government's record on fighting militants but was forced to admit more abused prisoners had been found inside jails overseen by his own Interior Ministry.
Al Qaeda and other militants branded the election ungodly and vowed to turn Iraq into an Islamic state, although their statement was muted in tone compared to the threats of violence such groups issued before the last election on Jan. 30.
In another contrast to the January vote, boycotted by most of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, over 1,000 Sunni scholars issued a statement urging the electorate to turn out in force.
Election day is on Thursday but the infirm, members of the security forces and prisoners were allowed to vote early, inking their fingers to guard against multiple voting before dropping their votes into plastic ballot boxes.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office issued a statement as soon as polls closed claiming he had won the votes of police officers in the provinces of Anbar and Maysan.
Iraq's electoral commission dismissed the claim, saying it was far too early to know. Full results of the vote are not expected until the end of the year or even early January.
Allawi, a secular Shi'ite who led Iraq's unelected U.S.-appointed government from mid-2004, is leading a broad coalition vowing to curb the gunmen, kidnappers and suicide bombers who have made life a torment for many ordinary Iraqis.
He called Jaafari's government toothless, a charge rejected by the prime minister at a news conference on Monday.
"People realise clearly how the security situation has changed, and remember how things were at the start of 2005 (when Allawi was in power)," Jaafari said.
Bush also said the security situation was improving in Iraq although he acknowledged 30,000 civilians had died since U.S. troops invaded, 999 days ago on March 20, 2003.
Washington has often refused to discuss the Iraqi civilian death toll, saying it was impossible to measure.
The president's figure of 30,000, which his aides stressed was not official, was in the range given by Iraq Body Count, a U.S.-British non-government group, which currently says between 27,383 and 30,892 civilians -- not just Iraqi citizens -- have been killed since the invasion.
Its figures are based on media reports, which often fail to capture all deaths in the country. Other estimates, including one published in the medical journal Lancet in late 2004, put the civilian death toll as high as 100,000, even then.
THIRTEEN PRISONERS ABUSED
The moral authority of Jaafari's government was dealt another blow by its admission that more abused prisoners had been found at jails overseen by the Interior Ministry, which is run by the main Shi'ite party in the ruling coalition.
Some 625 prisoners were found in the jail during a raid by Iraqi inspectors, backed by the U.S. military, four days ago.
"Thirteen of them had been subjected to abuse, and this abuse required medical care," Jaafari's office said in a statement, adding that it had launched an investigation.
The government has been under pressure over its human rights record since U.S. troops stumbled across a secret bunker operated by the Interior Ministry last month.
The cramped jail held 173 prisoners, most of them Sunnis who said they had been beaten, tortured and deprived of food.
Some Sunni Arabs have accused the government of sponsoring Shi'ite militias to abduct, intimidate and torture them. The government, made up of Shi'ites and Kurds, denies the charge.
Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq and four other Sunni Arab groups, including the Army of the Victorious Sect and the Brigades of Islamic Jihad, dismissed Thursday's election as "a Crusader conspiracy".
"We declare that we will carry on our jihad in the name of God until an Islamic state ruled by the Koran is established," the groups said, without specifically threatening the kind of election day attacks they carried out in January.
A suicide car bomber targeted a U.S. patrol as it passed through the city on Monday, killing himself and injuring one U.S. Marine, the U.S. military said. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility.
"A lion from the lions' brigade ... launched a new attack targeting crusaders in Falluja, may God free it!" the group said in a statement posted on the Internet.
Security measures are coming into force before Thursday's vote, seen as an important step for Iraq's fledgling democracy and a signpost on the way towards the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
They include travel restrictions, night curfews and closure of borders to foil any insurgent plans to disrupt the vote.
(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom and Deepa Babington, Luke Baker, Ahmed Rasheed, Michael Georgy and Aseel Kami in Baghdad)
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