Violence kills nearly 50 in Iraq as country prepares for this week's key election

The Associated Press

Iraqi police officers show their inked fingers at a polling center in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, April 28, 2014. Iraqi officials say suicide bombers have targeted polling centers as soldiers and security forces cast ballots ahead of parliamentary elections. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SINAN SALAHEDDIN, Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Militants on Monday targeted polling stations across much of Iraq and a crowd of Kurds jubilantly dancing on the street as soldiers and security forces cast ballots two days ahead of parliamentary elections, officials said. The attacks, including a suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad, left at least 46 people dead.

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 on Wednesday in the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The early balloting for police and soldiers is meant to free up the 1 million-strong military and security forces so they can protect polling stations and voters on election day.

More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament, which is widely expected to be won by an alliance led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is likely to seek a third four-year term in office.

The day's worst attack took place in the Kurdish town of Khanaqin, 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border. A suicide bomber walked toward a crowd of Kurds performing a traditional dance and blew himself up, killing at least 25 and injuring 35, many of them in critical condition.

The Kurds were celebrating the appearance on TV of Iraq's ailing President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who is being treated in Berlin since December 2012 following a stroke. The nearly 80-year-old Talabani was seen sitting in a wheelchair smiling and waving his index finger, stained purple, flanked by clapping relatives. Few details have been released about the severity of Talabani's illness.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab militants.

Khanaqin is in Diyala province, a region where Arabs and Kurds context territory and where Sunni militants target Shiites and Kurds.

Iraq is experiencing a surge in sectarian violence, with Sunni militants increasingly chiefly targeting security forces, army troops and members of the nation's Shiite majority. The resurgence of the bloodletting, which nearly tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007, underscores the precarious politics of a democratic, but splintered nation.

It also mirrors the three-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, where the civil war pits forces loyal to President Bashar Assad whose powerbase stems from followers of a Shiite offshoot sect, against mostly Sunni Arab rebels whose ranks are dominated by Islamists and militants from al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups. Iraqi Shiite militiamen fight on the side of Assad's forces.

Voters in Wednesday's polls are widely expected to cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines.

But balloting will not take place in parts of the vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad, where al-Qaida spin-off militants control parts of two cities, including the provincial capital, Ramadi.

Beside army troops and police, also voting on Monday were hospital patients, medical staff and detainees.

Abroad, Iraqi expatriates in more than 20 countries will also be able to cast ballots for a second day.

Authorities, meanwhile, announced the closure of Iraq's air space, saying it will not reopen until after the polls close on Wednesday evening. Already, the government has decreed a weeklong national holiday to coincide with the elections, extending a previously announced three-day break. Such moves were common in past elections, chiefly to empty the streets and allow security forces faster access to attack sites.

A ban on vehicles will take effect on Tuesday night in Baghdad and stay in force throughout election day on Wednesday, a precautionary measure used in past voting to guard against car bombings.

Security has been tight in Baghdad and much of the rest of the country amid concerns that Sunni militants blamed for a recent resurgence of sectarian violence could target polling stations.