BAGHDAD, (AP) – Insurgents bombed a polling station and lobbed grenades at voters Sunday, killing 26 people in attacks aimed at intimidating Iraqis participating in an election that will determine whether the country can overcome jagged sectarian divisions that have plagued it since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Iraqis hope the election will put them on a path toward national reconciliation as the U.S. prepares to withdraw combat forces by late summer and all American troops by the end of next year. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political future with challenges from a coalition of mainly Shiite religious groups on one side and a secular alliance combining Shiites and Sunnis on the other.
Despite mortars raining down nearby, voters in the capital still came to the polls. In the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad, Walid Abid, a 40-year-old father of two, was speaking as mortars landed several hundreds yards (meters) away. Police reported at least 20 mortar attacks in the neighborhood shortly after daybreak and mortars were also launched toward the Green Zone — home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister’s office.
“I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home,” Abid said. “Until when? We need to change things. If I stay home and not come to vote, Azamiyah will get worse.”
Many view the election as a crossroads where Iraq will decide whether to adhere to politics along the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines or move away from the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted, Sunni minority rule.
Al-Maliki, who has built his reputation as the man who restored order to the country, is facing a tough battle from his former Shiite allies, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
He also faces a challenge from a secular alliance led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.
“These acts will not undermine the will of the Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said Sunday morning, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot.
Exiting the polls, Iraqis waved purple-inked fingers — the now-iconic image synonymous with voting in this oil-rich country home to roughly 28 million people.
But observers have warned that the election is only the first step in the political process, and with the fractured nature of Iraqi politics, it could take months of negotiations after results are released in the coming days for a government to be formed.
Extraordinary security measures did not foil insurgents who vowed to disrupt the elections — which they see as validating the Shiite-led government and the U.S. occupation. They launched a spate of mortar, grenade and bomb attacks throughout the morning.
In a posting early Sunday on an Islamic Web site, the al-Qaeda front group Islamic State in Iraq warned that anyone taking part in the voting would be exposing themselves to “God’s wrath and to the mujahideen’s weapons,” saying the process bolsters Iraq’s Shiite majority.
In Baghdad’s northeast Hurriyah neighborhood, where mosque loudspeakers exhorted people to vote as “arrows to the enemies’ chest,” three people were killed when someone threw a hand grenade at a crowd heading to the polls, according to police and hospital officials.
In the city of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad, a bomb inside a polling center killed a policeman, said Iraqi Army Col. Abdul Hussein.
At least 14 people died in northeastern Baghdad after explosions leveled two buildings about a mile apart, and mortar attacks in western Baghdad killed seven people in two different neighborhoods, police and hospital officials said.
At one of the blasts in northeastern Baghdad, near the northern tip of the Sadr City slum, rescue workers said they could still hear the sound of women and children caught alive under the debris screaming for help. The blast created a mound of debris, scattered with blankets, pillows and torn bits of clothing. Rescue workers examined the ruins and used cranes and tractors to lift debris. Bodies were being recovered from under the rubble several hours after the explosion.
An explosion in the mixed neighborhood of Kirayaat, in northern Baghdad, killed one person, said police and hospital officials. There were a number of other explosions elsewhere in the country, but no other reports of fatalities.
U.S. troops had received reports of 44 significant attacks in Baghdad so far but most were small, Maj. William Voorhies said.
“These are intimidation tactics, and we are hearing that the focus is on mostly Sunni areas to keep Sunnis from voting and to exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite divide,” Voorhies said.
About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 seats in the new parliament, Iraq’s second, full-term legislature since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion seven years ago this month.
To try to secure the elections, Iraq sealed its borders, closed the airport and deployed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military and police in the streets. Extra checkpoints were set up across Baghdad and in some parts of central Baghdad, people could not go 50 yards (meters) without hitting a checkpoint.
In keeping with the U.S. military’s assertion that Iraqis are running the elections, the only visible American military presence was in the air or escorting election observers to and from the polls; four U.S. helicopter gunships could be seen at one point this afternoon in the sky over northern Baghdad.
The U.S., which has lost more than 4,300 troops in the nearly seven-year conflict, has fewer than 100,000 troops in the country — a number that is expected to drop to about 50,000 by the end of August.
Despite persistent violence and frustration over years of government failure to provide even basic services such as water and electricity to the public, many Iraqis were still excited to vote.
In the city of Nasiriyah, in the Shiite south, crowds of people filled the streets — men in what appeared to be their best clothes were accompanied by women in long black cloaks and often children.
“I voted in 2005. There were a lot less people then,” said Ahmed Saad Chadian. “Today, participation is much higher.”
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, dozens of voters also lined up to cast their ballot.
“We came to participate in this national day, and we don’t care about the explosions,” said Sahib Jabr, a 34-year-old old taxi driver.