BAQUBA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Suicide bombers struck Iraq on Wednesday just days before a national election, killing 33 people and wounding 55 as the war-scarred nation seeks to cement its frail democracy before a U.S. troop pullout.
The parliamentary poll on Sunday is viewed as pivotal for Iraq as U.S. forces prepare to end combat operations in August ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011, and Iraq starts to lure foreign investors in an effort to rebuild.
The bombings could damage the campaign of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has partly based his hopes of re-election on improved security throughout Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi officials say attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents are aimed at undermining his Shi’ite-led government.
Sporadic political violence and assassinations have marred the immediate run-up to the election, especially in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar. But until Wednesday the campaign had not seen major assaults by suicide bombers like those that devastated public buildings and hotels in Baghdad in January, December, October and August.
Police said the first two attackers drove explosives-packed cars at police stations in the centre and west of the turbulent city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The third assailant rode in an ambulance from one of the first blast sites to the city’s main hospital, where he detonated his bomb as casualties from the earlier explosions were ferried there. “He was disguised as a wounded person. He was wearing a camouflage uniform. He blew himself up when he got out of the ambulance at the entrance of the hospital,” police spokesman Major Ghalib al-Jubouri said.
The bomber had tried to target the provincial police chief, who had been visiting the hospital, but security guards stopped him. Many people were killed or wounded. More chaos erupted as the police chief’s bodyguards shot randomly in the air. “The suicide attacker was wearing a police uniform, with the rank of lieutenant,” Ali Mohammed, a wounded policeman receiving treatment at the hospital, told Reuters.
At least 12 of the dead were police officers.
Baquba is the capital of Diyala, a troubled province where al Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups still battle U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.
A volatile ethno-sectarian mix of minority Kurds, majority Shi’ites and Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein have made it difficult to bring peace to Diyala.
The provincial governor’s spokeswoman, Samira al-Shibli, said security forces had imposed a curfew after the attacks.
Talib Mohamed Hassan, head of the provincial council of Diyala, said foreign-funded insurgents were trying to scare Iraqis away from the polling booths, but would not succeed. “Even if such attacks continue on election day, people will vote. It has become a challenge,” he said.
The sectarian slaughter unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has largely receded, but relations remain strained between Sunnis and the Shi’ite majority that was empowered by the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam.