Baghdad – Dozens of explosions ripped through Baghdad and provinces to the north and west as Iraqis voted Sunday in parliamentary elections, killing at least 34 people and wounding more than 65, Iraqi authorities said.
Most of the casualties were in Baghdad, especially the Iraqi capital’s Ur neighborhood, where rescuers used bulldozers, cranes and their bare hands to dig families from the rubble of an apartment building that collapsed after an early-morning explosion. In the other attacks, militants used rockets, mortar shells and homemade bombs to keep voters from the polls.
“This will not affect Iraqis’ dedication to vote,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told reporters after he voted inside the heavily fortified Green Zone compound.
The attacks tapered off by mid-afternoon, and before the polls closed at 5 p.m., Iraqis in even the most volatile cities made their way to heavily guarded polling stations to cast ballots in what were billed as the first elections organized, carried out and secured by Iraqis. Iraqi and U.S. officials had hoped that a smooth election day would reveal a defeated insurgency and confident Iraqi security forces, paving the way for an on-time withdrawal of American combat brigades by the end of next year.
However, within an hour of the polls opening at 7 a.m., U.S. attack helicopters could be seen in the sky near where blasts had occurred, an indication that Iraqi forces had called for backup. Under the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, American forces operate only in coordination with their Iraqi counterparts. No American armored vehicles could be seen in Baghdad streets.
Several Iraqis said the explosions only strengthened their resolve to vote. In the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, voters barely flinched at the sounds of mortar shells.
Several residents brought their elderly parents and young children to polling sites, dressing up as if for a holiday. Children at polling centers were allowed to dip their fingers into the now-iconic purple ink that’s used to prevent Iraqis from attempting to vote more than once.
“The explosions woke me up at 7 a.m. and I just thought to myself, ‘I hope this day passes peacefully,” said Zahra al Nasrawi, 23. “But I felt I had to come out. We all came, my mother, sister and brother. We’re voting for the candidate we think will bring back security and integrity.”
President Barack Obama Sunday congratulated Iraqis for casting their ballots. “I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today,” Obama said in a statement. “Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process.”
“I commend the Iraqi government and Iraqi Security Forces for providing security at nearly 50,000 voting booths at more than 8,000 polling stations across Iraq,” Obama said. “We mourn the tragic loss of life today, and honor the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy.”
Even if the elections are judged a success, meaning that the insurgents’ efforts to derail them failed and enough Iraqis in all the country’s squabbling sects, regions and ethnic groups voted for the winning candidates to claim mandates, they’ll be only a first step toward building a democracy,
No party is expected to win an outright majority. So in the coming weeks and months, newly elected legislators who represent secular and Islamic parties; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; competing Shiite groups; cities and rural areas; Arabs, Kurds, Turkomens and others; will have to make the compromises that’ll be necessary to form a governing coalition in the 325-seat parliament and choose a new prime minister.
McClatchy special correspondents throughout Iraq contributed.