Bombers attack first voters in Iraqi poll

Insurgents throw down challenge to security forces before 19 million cast ballots on Sunday.

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BAGHDAD // Up to 800,000 Iraqis went to the polls yesterday at the start of an historic parliamentary election that observers believe has the potential to replace sectarian division with democratic politics. Those who voted yesterday were hospital patients, prison detainees, and the security forces who will be on duty when the country's 19 million registered voters cast their ballots on Sunday. The extent of the task facing them was made clear yesterday when 17 people were killed and more than 30 injured in three attacks in Baghdad.

In the first attack, in the Hurriyah area, seven died when a rocket was fired 500 metres from a school that will be a polling station on Sunday. Later, in the Mansour area, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a queue of soldiers waiting to vote, killing six and injuring 18. In the third attack, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest near police officers at a polling station, killing four and injuring 14.

The violence has cast a shadow over Sunday's election, which will decide whether the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, can win a second term in office for his Shiite-dominated coalition. Full results are expected on March 18, and the final outcome, certified by Iraq's supreme court, about two weeks later. But with no single political bloc expected to win a majority, the vote will be followed by weeks of political wrangling as a new government takes shape.

Sadiq al Rikabi, one of Mr al Maliki's key political advisers, said it could be the end of May before the new government is established. "It's clear for all the players that no one list can form the government, so obviously we need to build a future coalition between them," he told The National. "We have no concrete commitment and no closed doors - all doors are open. This is the political game." * The National staff