BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Seeking to boost morale at home and improve its image abroad, Iraq held its first parliamentary elections since 1989 on Sunday, but only candidates loyal to Saddam Hussein could run.

Many voters expressed hope that a new parliament could help work toward lifting bruising U.N. sanctions imposed following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

``Ending the embargo is the most important thing to us. We need food and medicine,'' said Karima Hussein, a young woman who voted in the impoverished Saddam City area of the capital.

But the 250-seat parliament has no real power and invariably backs President Saddam, who makes all important decisions. Results were expected Monday.

All 689 candidates were approved in advance by a government screening committee and were either members of Saddam's Baath Party or independents who pledged their allegiance to the 1968 coup that brought the party to power.

Sunday's voting came as Baghdad was trying to work out a deal with the United Nations to sell limited amounts of oil to buy food and medicine for Iraq's 20 million people.

The sanctions, which won't be lifted until the United Nations is satisfied that Baghdad has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction, have throttled Iraq's oil-based economy. But until recently Iraq had refused to consider the limited oil sales plan, calling it a violation of its sovereignty.

Saddam has sought to burnish the country's image with the parliamentary elections Sunday and a presidential referendum in October in which he reportedly won 99.96 percent of the vote.

Iraqi officials have portrayed the two recent polls as moves toward constitutional government and democratic rule, but Iraq's critics abroad have denounced the process as a sham.

``We are passing through a very hard time due to the embargo and sanctions,'' Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's second vice president, said before voting at a school in Baghdad. ``In spite of these conditions, we did not suspend these elections.''

Iraqi opposition groups in exile Sunday criticized the ``farce of elections.''

``We condemn these elections,'' said a statement by nine groups based in Damascus, the Syrian capital. It urged Iraqis to boycott the polls.

Election officials Sunday estimated that 90 percent of Iraq's 8 million registered voters would cast their ballots.

There is no punishment for not voting, but the government strongly urged Iraqis to go to the polls in messages broadcast on radio and television. Election officials had for weeks made house-to-house calls to give Iraqis their voting certificates.

During the campaign, candidates did not offer any detailed platforms. Many stressed their roles in the country's two recent wars, the 1980-88 conflict with neighboring Iran and the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

At one polling station in a prosperous Baghdad neighborhood, voters were choosing five of the 19 candidates in their district.

``There are several Ph.D. holders on the ballot,'' said one voter who identified himself only as Abu Mazen. ``Being a Ph.D. holder myself, I would like them to represent me.

``We hope with some intellectuals in parliament they can find solutions,'' he said.

For the U.N. sanctions to be lifted, Iraq must destroy its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. U.N. inspectors are still skeptical about Iraq's compliance and it's unlikely the full sanctions will be lifted anytime soon.

Iraq has held two rounds of talks with the United Nations on a plan to sell $1 billion worth of oil every 90 days. The proceeds from the U.N.-supervised sales would be used to buy food and medicine, pay war reparations and finance U.N. operations in Iraq.

Two rounds of talks in New York have failed to reach an agreement. A third round is scheduled to begin April 8.

The talks are largely responsible for a recent boost in the confidence of ordinary Iraqis.

Iraqis appear to be buying more goods and the dinar, is currently trading in Baghdad's black market at 700 to the dollar, compared to an all-time low of 3,000 in January.