BAGHDAD (AP) – Back-to-back bombs ripped through an outdoor market northeast of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 17 people, officials said, on the eve of the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The attacks are an apparent effort by the militants to discourage Iraqi voters from going to the polls on Wednesday in the first nationwide balloting since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Tuesday’s attack took place in the town of Sadiyah, 140 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad, a police officer said.
One of the bombs was placed in the middle of the town’s main vegetable and meat market, he said, while the second was put near one of the exits – presumably trying to strike people fleeing from the first blast, a tactic widely used by insurgents in order to inflict as many casualties as possible. Four women and two children were among the dead, and 42 people were wounded.
A medical official confirmed the casualty figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida-inspired Sunni militants seeking to undermine the Shiite-led government’s efforts to maintain security across the country ahead of Wednesday’s polling.
Violence has surged in Iraq after a few years relative calm. According to the United Nations, 8,868 people were killed in Iraq last year – the country’s highest death toll since a peak of sectarian bloodletting in 2007. Insurgents have intensified attacks in the run-up to the elections, including a series of bombings on Friday that targeted an election rally for a militant Shiite group, killing at least 33 people.
On Tuesday, the London-based Amnesty International lashed out at the Iraqi government for failing to maintain security, expressing worries that could affect the vote.
“People should be able vote without fear of being deliberately targeted,” a statement by the rights group quoted Said Boumedouha as saying. “It is the Iraqi authorities’ duty to ensure that people are able to participate in elections free from attacks by armed groups, intimidation by the security forces and any actions which will interfere with exercising their constitutional right to vote.”
Earlier Tuesday, the al-Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for a wave of deadly attacks across Iraq the day before, including a suicide bombing in a Kurdish town northeast of Baghdad that killed at least 25 people.
The bomber in Monday’s attack in the Kurdish town of Khanaqin struck a group of Kurds who were celebrating the appearance on local TV of Iraq’s ailing President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd.
Talabani was shown after casting his ballot abroad as part of early and expatriate voting in his first public appearance since 2012. He has been in Germany for medical treatment following a stroke.
On Monday, insurgents mostly targeted polling stations where security forces were casting ballots two days ahead of the vote. The early balloting meant to give troops a chance to vote since most would be on duty on election day, guarding the polls.
In its statement posted on one of its Twitter accounts, the ISIL also claimed responsibility for some of Monday’s attacks on polling stations. The authenticity of the statements could not be independently verified but its style was consistent with previous statements by the group.
Emboldened by the successes of its fellow militants in the civil war next door in Syria and by widespread Sunni anger at the government in Baghdad, the group has strengthened since last year in Iraq.
Along with other insurgent groups, it has gained control since late last December of pockets of the provincial capital of Anbar province, Ramadi, and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah.
Due to the instability and clashes, there will be no balloting Wednesday in parts of Anbar.
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.
Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report from Baghdad.
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