BAGHDAD — Iraq opened its polls early on Thursday for hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers responsible for protecting the country’s electorate, and they came under assault themselves.
In all, three attacks in Baghdad, two in Mosul and another in Diyala struck near polling stations where Iraqi forces mustered to vote, a potentially ominous foreshadowing of the violence extremists have vowed to carry out in an effort to mar Sunday’s pivotal election of a new Parliament.
There were other problems that could also undermine the elections and their legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the world. Despite months of preparations by election officials and the United Nations, irregularities were reported at polling stations across the country, with thousands of names of soldiers and police officers missing from voter rolls.
“This is an attack on our freedom to vote,” one police officer in Falluja said, failing to find his name on the lists of eligible voters. “Is this how the police are rewarded for their sacrifices?”
The first day of voting, widely viewed as a measure of Iraq’s still uncertain transition from dictatorship to democracy after the American invasion seven years ago, was one of jarring contrasts. Soldiers in one part of Baghdad joyously waved their weapons and purple-stained fingers after casting their ballots, while only a few miles away, their colleagues picked through debris and bits of flesh in the gruesome aftermath of a suicide attack that struck a truckload of 27 soldiers who had just voted.
At least a dozen people were killed across Baghdad — seven of them soldiers — and scores more were wounded, according to official counts that soldiers and police officers on the scene suggested understated the actual toll.
Compared to the nihilistic bloodshed of the darkest years of the conflict here, and some of the large-scale attacks that Iraq has witnessed in recent months, the violence was small in scale. But with the American military largely operating in the background, it underscored the country’s precariousness ahead of the vote. In Diyala, a volatile province northeast of Baghdad, fliers and CDs scattered in the streets threatened to kill anyone who voted.
The government has undertaken overwhelming security precautions, with months of planning and training with American military advisers. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who faces a fierce contest to win a second term, declared a holiday from Thursday to Sunday.