An explosion in a trash heap near a crowded Baghdad market killed seven people on Thursday, police said, as some Iraqis cast ballots in early voting ahead of Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary elections.
Insurgents have repeatedly threatened to use violence to disrupt the elections, which will help determine who will oversee the country as U.S. forces go home and whether the country can overcome its deep sectarian divides.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are expected to take part in Thursday’s early voting, a one-day session designed for those who might not be able to get to the polls on Sunday, when the rest of the country votes.
Early voters include detainees, hospital patients and military and security personnel who will be working election day.
“The special voting has started and the turnout is good,” said Karim al-Tamimi, an official at the Independent High Electoral Commission which oversees the voting.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq estimated that between 600,000 and 700,000 people could vote on Thursday. About 19 million of Iraq’s estimated 28 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, which will see Iraqi expatriates cast ballots in 16 countries around the world.
Thursday’s explosion in a predominantly Shiite neighbourhood in northwestern Baghdad was the first known instance of fatal violence since polls opened on Thursday morning.
The blast near the market entrance also wounded 32 others, a police official said.
A hospital official confirmed the casualties. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
The blast happened about 500m from a polling station that was not taking part in early voting. But there were conflicting reports about the nature of the explosion.
Early reports called it a roadside bomb, while later reports said it was a rocket.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that insurgents could launch attacks in an attempt to disrupt the vote. On Wednesday, a string of suicide bombings in the city of Baqouba left 32 Iraqis dead.
Sunday’s elections are only Iraq’s second for a full parliamentary term since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, leading to the eventual creation of the Shiite-dominated government in power today.
At a high school in Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood, police and military officials crowded in to the building to cast their ballots, then wiped the now-iconic purple ink — used to prevent people from voting twice — from their fingers.
Many expressed frustration at the government and a desire for change.
“The people who are in government, they did nothing for the country and if they return to power, they will do nothing again,” said Jolan Ali Hossein, a police officer who voted for a little-known independent candidate.
Others said they were excited about being able to vote and help usher in a new political era in Iraq.
“In the past we used to make change through violence. Now we have democracy. We are heading toward it,” said Hamza Abbas, another police officer. He declined to say who he was voting for.
Security was tight on Thursday, with officials in the western province of Anbar — once the heartland of the insurgency — announcing a vehicle ban going into effect on Thursday.
Around the country, hundreds of thousands of police and soldiers have been flooding the streets to prevent attacks. The Baghdad airport is slated to be closed election day.