BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqis on Sunday braved waves of bomb, mortar and rocket attacks that killed 24 people to vote in parliamentary elections that Al-Qaeda vowed to wreck.
Baghdad bore the brunt of the violence, with dozens of mortars raining down on the capital as voting stations opened for the war-shattered nation's second parliamentary election since US-led forces ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
|An Iraqi woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Baghdad's Shiite bastion of Sadr City on March 7. AFP photo|
Fallujah, Baquba, Samarra and other cities across the country were also hit by mortar rounds or bombs, many of them exploding near polling stations.
But the capital saw the deadliest attacks.
A Katyusha rocket flattened a residential building, killing 12 and wounding 10, officials said, adding that a second blast killed four and wounded eight when another building was targeted by a bomb, security officials said.
Four more people were killed by mortar attacks in Baghdad and four others by bombs that between them wounded 40, the officials said.
The attacks come despite a massive security operation in place for Sunday's voting, with 200,000 police and soldiers deployed in Baghdad alone.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the attacks "are only noise to impress voters but Iraqis are a people who love challenges and you will see that this will not damage their morale."
Maliki cast his vote in Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" which earlier Sunday took several mortar hits.
Abu Adel, a 57-year-old retired man, was one of the tens of thousands across the country who queued up at polling stations to cast their votes despite the danger.
"It is a duty to participate in the democratic process," he said as he voted at the Omar al-Mokhtar polling centre in central Baghdad.
Sunni Arabs are expected to turn out in force at voting centres, in stark contrast to 2005 when they boycotted nationwide polls in protest at the rise to power of the nation's long-oppressed Shiite majority. Factfile: Iraq
That boycott deepened the sectarian divide and heightened unrest which killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion and which has only eased in the past two years.
The election will usher in a government tasked with tackling a multitude of problems, including still high levels of violence, an economy in tatters and state ministries mired in a culture of endemic corruption.
Seven years after the war, much of Baghdad remains bomb damaged, most homes receive only a few hours of mains electricity a day and lack clean drinking water, and a quarter of the Iraqi population is illiterate.
Northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, which is almost free of violent attacks and whose economy is booming, is one of the country's few bright spots.
Iraq has vast oil deposits and in recent months has signed 10 massive deals with foreign companies, but income will take years to flow into government coffers and for the moment much of the population remains poor.
The United States hopes the election will bolster Iraq's fledgling democracy, make it a beacon in a region where free and fair elections are the exception, and pave the way to a smooth pullout of American troops.
Maliki, the Shiite head of the State of Law Alliance, is bidding to become the first Iraqi voted back into office at the will of the people who for decades had no choice but Saddam's Baath Party.
His rivals include Iyad Allawi, a Shiite former prime minister who heads the Iraqiya list, a rival secular coalition that 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.
Chalabi, Mahdi and Solagh all represent the Iraq National Alliance, the main Shiite religious list.
Under the Iraqi electoral system no one party will emerge with the 163 seats needed to form a government on their own and the ensuing horse-trading to form a governing coalition could take months.
So far, 4,380 American soldiers have died since the invasion, according to an AFP tally based on the independent website icasualties.org.
Iraq Body Count, a Britain-based group, estimates that between 95,000 and 104,000 civilians were killed in the same period.
Although violence is at a post-invasion low, attacks occur almost daily in Baghdad and other hotspots. More than 350 people died in unrest last month. Related article: Key dates since US-lead invasion
Al-Qaeda in Iraq in a statement on Friday threatened to kill voters, days after a series of suicide attacks and bombings killed dozens.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the Qaeda front in the country, said it was imposing a "curfew" on Sunday and anyone who dared defy it would "expose himself to the anger of Allah and ... all kinds of weapons of the mujahedeen."