Fifty people were killed yesterday as suicide bombers attacked a political rally and Iraqi police and soldiers cast their votes early for a national election in two days’ time, authorities said.
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 tomorrow, in the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces.
Soldiers and police are voting first to allow the estimated one million military and security personnel to protect polling stations and voters on election day.
A suicide attacker killed at least 30 people and wounded 50 others at a Kurdish political gathering in the town of Khanaqin, 100 miles north-east of Baghdad, security sources said.
The Kurds were celebrating the TV appearance of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. The 80-year-old cast his vote in Germany, where he has been undergoing medical treatment since December 2012.
“The attacker snuck among the crowds near the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s headquarters and blew himself up, causing a tragic massacre,” a police officer said, sobbing after he found his brother was among the dead.
Meanwhile, Sunni Muslim militants, mostly disguised in army and police uniforms, struck at polling centres around Baghdad and northern Iraq as militants tried to disrupt the country’s fourth national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A curfew begins tonight as Iraqis prepare to vote tomorrow. More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats. The election is widely expected to be won by an alliance led by Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Security forces are currently battling an al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in western Anbar province and other areas encircling the capital.
In the Mansour district of Baghdad, six police died and 16 others were wounded when a suicide bomber dressed as a policeman detonated his explosives at the entrance of a school being used as a polling station, police and medical sources said.
In the Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya, a bomber blew himself up in front of another polling station, killing four soldiers and wounding seven more.
Ahmed Sultan was waiting to vote. He said: “We saw a person in army uniform coming out from a side street. He started to run in our direction. We all started to flee after realising he was a [suicide] bomber.
“While I was running a powerful blast threw me … everybody was shouting, ‘Run, run, a second bomber could hit us’.”
ISIL, which wants to create a Sunni Muslim caliphate, has threatened Sunni Iraqis with death if they vote. Yesterday’s attacks seemed designed to intimidate people debating whether it would be safe to vote.
Hatef Yidam, a police officer who was voting, said: “These are crucial elections that we hope will make things better in Iraq. We want peace and a life with dignity.”
Security has been tight amid concerns that Sunni militants, who were blamed for a recent resurgence of sectarian violence, could target polling stations. But despite this, militants managed to strike at several centres.
In Tuz Khurmatu, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform blew himself up near a polling station, killing three police officers and wounding nine people, police said. Another bomber in police uniform killed six policemen in Kirkuk.
One soldier was killed and four hurt when a suicide attacker in army uniform blew himself up near a polling station in Hawija, 40 miles south-west of Kirkuk.