Early voting in Iraq's general election was overshadowed Thursday by two suicide bombings at polling stations that killed seven soldiers and a mortar attack that claimed the lives of seven civilians.
The blasts, which also wounded 48 people, including 25 Iraqi soldiers, came despite a massive security operation, with troops, prisoners and the sick casting their ballots in special voting ahead of Sunday's parliamentary ballot.
The violence came despite heightened security measures and after the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, threatened to disrupt the election by "military means."
The first suicide bomber blew himself up at a school being used as a polling centre in the upscale west Baghdad neighborhood of Mansur at 1:00 pm (1000 GMT). Three soldiers were killed and 15 were wounded.
In the second attack around 45 minutes later, a bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest in another school turned polling station in Baab al-Muadham, in the center of the Iraqi capital, killing four soldiers and wounding 10.
Earlier, seven people, four of them children, were killed and 23 wounded in an attack near a polling station that will be used in Sunday's election, a medical official said.
Election organizers expect around 800,000 people, who will not be able to go to polling stations on Sunday, to take part in the early voting session.
"I cannot reveal his name, but he is secular," said Nidhal, a nurse at Baghdad's Abid al-Haitham hospital, when asked who she had voted for. Her finger bore an ink stain, indicating she had cast her ballot.
"I hope deep down in my heart that he will win, because Iraq cannot be governed by Islamists and we need a savior."
Police in Anbar, a desert province that became the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Muslim-based insurgency after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, said they had briefly imposed an overnight vehicle curfew after finding a fuel tanker primed with explosives.
The discovery came a day after at least 33 people were killed in volatile Diyala province northeast of Baghdad when three suicide bombers attacked police stations and a hospital.
Police said they had arrested 10 suspects in connection with the coordinated assaults in Baquba, Diyala's provincial capital.
Almost 19 million Iraqis, from a population of 30 million, are eligible to vote at 10,000 polling stations around the country, with 6,200 candidates standing for the 325 seats in parliament.
hope deep down in my heart that he will win, because Iraq cannot be governed by Islamists and we need a savior
Nidhal, a nurse at Abid Haitham hospital in Baghdad
The outcome of the election, Iraq's second full national poll since the invasion, will test progress towards stability.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday only an "extraordinarily dire" security deterioration would warrant a slowdown in plans for the remaining 96,000 U.S. troops to end combat operations in August and withdraw completely by the end of next year.
Foreign oil firms starting to invest in Iraq's vast oilfields are also watching to see if security gains can be sustained against Shiite militia, which the U.S. military says are backed by Iran, and Sunni Islamist insurgents like al-Qaeda.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has based his campaign for a second term in part on claiming credit for a sharp fall in violence as all-out war between once dominant Sunnis and the majority Shiites empowered by Saddam Hussein's fall receded.
He faces a stiff challenge from his erstwhile Shiite partners and also from a secular, cross-sectarian alliance headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and his security credentials have been undermined by a series of devastating assaults on the Iraqi capital by suicide bombers since August.