, BAGHDAD, Mar 7 – Blasts killed at least 24 people and wounded dozens in Baghdad as Iraqis voted Sunday in an election that Al-Qaeda threatened to sabotage, an interior ministry official said.
Dozens of mortar rounds rained down on the Iraqi capital shortly after voting stations opened as the war-shattered nation staged its second parliamentary election since US-led forces ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Fallujah, Baquba, Samarra and other cities across the country were also hit by mortars or bombs, many of them exploding near polling stations.
But the capital saw the deadliest attacks.
A massive blast flattened a residential building, killing and wounding many people, officials said, adding that a second blast killed more people after another building was targeted in a further apparent dynamite attack.
The attacks come despite a massive security operation in place for Sunday\’s voting, with 200,000 police and soldiers deployed in Baghdad alone.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the attacks "are only noise to impress voters but Iraqis are a people who love challenges and you will see that this will not damage their morale."
Maliki cast his vote in Baghdad\’s fortified "Green Zone" which earlier Sunday took several mortar hits.
Abu Adel, 57, a retired man who was the first to cast his ballot at the Omar al-Mokhtar polling centre in central Baghdad, agreed with his prime minister.
"It is a duty to participate in the democratic process," he said.
Sunni Arabs are expected to turn out in force at voting centres, in stark contrast to 2005 when they boycotted nationwide polls in protest at the rise to power of the nation\’s long-oppressed Shiite majority.
That boycott deepened the sectarian divide and heightened unrest which killed ten s of thousands of Iraqis in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion and which has only eased in the past two years. Factfile: Iraq
The election will usher in a government tasked with tackling a multitude of problems, including still high levels of violence, an economy in tatters and state ministries mired in a culture of endemic corruption.
Seven years after the war, much of Baghdad remains bomb damaged, most homes receive only a few hours of mains electricity a day and lack clean drinking water, and a quarter of the Iraqi population is illiterate.
Northern Iraq\’s autonomous Kurdish region, which is almost free of violent attacks and whose economy is booming, is one of the country\’s few bright spots.
Iraq has vast oil deposits and in recent months has signed 10 massive deals with foreign companies, but income will take years to flow into government coffers and for the moment much of the population remains poor.
The United States hopes the election will bolster Iraq\’s fledgling democracy, make it a beacon in a region where free and fair elections are the exception, and pave the way to a smooth pullout of American troops.
Maliki, the Shiite head of the State of Law Alliance, is bidding to become the first Iraqi voted back into office at the will of the people who for decades had no choice but Saddam\’s Baath Party.
His rivals include Iyad Allawi, a Shiite former prime minister who heads the Iraqiya list, a rival secular coalition that has strong support in Sunni areas.
Also seeking the top job are Ahmed Chalabi, a former deputy premier once favoured but now loathed by Washington; Adel Abdel Mahdi, the country\’s Shiite vice president; and Baqer Jaber Solagh, the finance minister.
Chalabi, Mahdi and Solagh all represent the Iraq National Alliance, the main Shiite religious list.
Under the Iraqi electoral system no one party will emerge with the 163 seats needed to form a government on their own and the ensuing horse-trading to form a governing coalition could take months.
So far, 4,380 American soldiers have died since the invasion, according to an AFP tally based on the independent website icasualties.org. Related article: Key dates since US-lead invasion
Iraq Body Count, a Britain-based group, estimates that between 95,000 and 104,000 civilians were killed in the same period.
Although violence is at a post-invasion low, attacks occur almost daily in Baghdad and other hotspots. More than 350 people died in unrest last month.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq in a statement on Friday threatened to kill voters, days after a series of suicide attacks and bombings killed dozens.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the Qaeda front in the country, said it was imposing a "curfew" on Sunday and anyone who dared defy it would "expose himself to the anger of Allah and … all kinds of weapons of the mujahedeen."