Iraqis dodge explosions to cast their votes

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Bombs and mortars pounded Baghdad Sunday morning, killing at least 27 people and wounding more than 40, as Iraqis dodged explosions to cast their votes.

The first blasts echoed across the capital before 7 a.m. and continued until close to noon, casting a pall on the day Iraqis voted for their second four-year government since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In western Anbar provinces, explosions jolted the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, but no casualties were reported. The Islamic State of Iraq, a radical umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda, had declared a curfew for election day and threatened death to all those who headed to the polls.

The group, which distributed warning fliers in Sunni neighborhoods, had hoped to discredit the democratic process and enflame tensions among Shiites and Sunnis. The election has been deemed a crucial benchmark for the U.S. government’s ambitions to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August.

Two of the worst of the attacks happened in eastern Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood. There, two residential apartment buildings, just blocks apart, were brought down by explosions within a 30 minute span before 8 a.m. Neighbors said they believed in both cases someone had rented space on the bottom floor of the building and rigged their rooms with explosives.

Both buildings collapsed, leaving mountains of rubble as civil defense teams operated cranes and dug with shovels, looking for survivors. Neighbors watching the rescuers were stunned. A woman in a dark black robe wailed for her mother, who died in the blast.

“My mother. My mother. This is what we get from this government,” she screamed, dropping to the grassy divider in the middle of the street. She punched her own face and then started to run toward the wreckage, before a policeman blocked her.

“She called me last night. I told her I loved her,” she screamed. The attacks left 14 dead and 16 wounded, according to police.

In the Shurta neighborhood in west Baghdad, across the Tigris river, another blast tore down a building, killing seven and wounding 16, police said. Earlier reports had put the fatalities at eight. Three voters were killed in the Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah when a man hurled a hand grenade near a polling station, police said. A mortar killed three people in western Baghdad, according to police.

Mortar rounds also were lobbed toward the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area that is home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister’s office. The attacks in Baghdad, which hit both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, seemed to have impacted voter turnout in the first few hours, as only small groups ventured to the polls. But soon, a steady flow of people drifted to voting centers.

“I voted despite this. I voted for democracy,” said Abu Mustapha, 35, in Ur, waving his blue-ink dipped.

Polling numbers seemed to fall far short of Iraq’s first election in January 2005, when the capital’s voting centers were clogged with people. About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 parliament seats.

Iraqis leaders hailed the vote as a milestone for Iraq. “This day means for us the completion of building the democracy, building the political process [and] using our citizens as a foundation for building the state process,” said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki, who has sought to appeal to both Shiite Islamists and secular-leaning Iraqis, faces steep competition from the coalition of secular candidates led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. He was also competing for votes with the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite Islamist slate, including many of his former political allies.

While some Iraqis expressed an interest in reelecting al-Maliki, others made clear they were dissatisfied with the post-Hussein political process after years of war and little improvement in public services.

“Anyone we vote for will be bad,” said Ali Abdul Wahab, who ventured out in the early morning on an empty street as explosions rattled the city. He said he was voting for Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister and Shiite Islamist. He said that given a choice between the relative security of Hussein’s era or the current period, he would choose the former. “I am telling you honestly. Saddam was much better despite the fact he was hurting and executing people. He was good with security and safety,” Abdul Wahab said.

In Najaf on Saturday, a car bomb ripped through a parking lot used by pilgrims in the Shiite holy city, killing three people in an attack that was almost certainly intended to ignite sectarian passions. Two Iranians and an Iraqi were killed in the explosion about 300 yards from the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. The attack wounded 54 people, 19 of them Iranians.