BAGHDAD – Militants on Monday targeted polling stations across much of Iraq as soldiers and security forces cast ballots two days ahead of parliamentary elections, officials said. The attacks, including a suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad, left at least 46 people dead.
The wave of attacks was an apparent attempt to derail the balloting process and discourage the rest of the country’s 22 million registered voters from going to the polls on Wednesday in the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The early balloting for police and soldiers is meant to free up the 1 million-strong military and security forces so they can protect polling stations and voters on election day.
More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament, which is widely expected to be won by an alliance led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is likely to seek a third four-year term in office.
The day’s worst attack took place in the Kurdish town of Khanaqin, 87 miles northeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border. A suicide bomber walked toward a crowd of Kurds performing a traditional dance and blew himself up, killing at least 25 and injuring 35, many of them in critical condition.
The Kurds were celebrating the appearance on TV of Iraq’s ailing President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has been treated in Berlin since December 2012 following a stroke. The nearly 80-year-old Talabani was seen sitting in a wheelchair smiling and waving his index finger, stained purple, flanked by clapping relatives. Few details have been released about the severity of Talabani’s illness.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab militants.
Khanaqin is in Diyala province, a region where Arabs and Kurds context territory and where Sunni militants target Shiites and Kurds.
Iraq is experiencing a surge in sectarian violence, with Sunni militants increasingly chiefly targeting security forces, army troops and members of the nation’s Shiite majority. The resurgence of the bloodletting, which nearly tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007, underscores the precarious politics of a democratic but splintered nation.
Voters in Wednesday’s polls are widely expected to cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines.
But balloting will not take place in parts of the vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad, where al-Qaida spinoff militants control parts of two cities, including the provincial capital, Ramadi.