Iraq attacks kill 14 as vote starts

BAGHDAD: Early voting in Iraq’s general election was overshadowed today by two suicide bombings at polling stations that killed seven soldiers and a mortar attack that claimed the lives of seven civilians.

The blasts, which also wounded 48 people, including 25 Iraqi troops, came as soldiers, prisoners and the sick were casting their ballots in special voting ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary ballot.

The violence came despite a massive security operation involving 200,000 personnel in the capital alone and after the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, threatened to disrupt the election by “military means.” The first suicide bomber blew himself up at a school being used as a polling centre in the upscale west Baghdad neighbourhood of Mansur. Three soldiers were killed and 15 wounded.

Forty-five minutes later, a bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest in another school-turned-polling station in Baab al-Muadham, in the centre of the Iraqi capital, killing four soldiers and wounding 10.

Earlier, seven people, four of them children, were killed and 23 wounded in an attack in northern Baghdad near a polling station that will be used in Sunday’s election, a medical official said.

The deadly violence came even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country has been accused by Baghdad in the past of harbouring Iraqi insurgents, expressed hopes for a calm election.

Around 950,000 people who will not be able to vote on Sunday were expected to take part in today’s early voting for the second national ballot since dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster in the US-led invasion of 2003.

Sunday’s vote, which will usher in a government tasked with tackling still high levels of violence, endemic corruption and an economy in tatters, is seen as a pivotal test of democracy six months before US combat troops quit Iraq.

Sunni Arabs were expected to turn out in force to cast their ballots, in stark contrast to the last general election in 2005 which they mostly boycotted in protest at the rise to power of the nation’s long-oppressed Shiite majority.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Shiite head of the State of Law Alliance, a religious coalition with a secular outlook that includes Sunni tribal sheikhs, said yesterday he was “certain” of poll victory.

His rivals include Allawi, who heads the Iraqiya list, a secular coalition which has strong support in Sunni areas.

Also seeking the top job are Ahmed Chalabi, a former deputy premier once favoured but now loathed by Washington, Adel Abdel Mahdi, the country’s Shiite vice president, and Baqer Jaber Solagh, the finance minister.