Thursday, March 4, 2010

BAGHDAD | Suicide bombers struck in quick succession Wednesday in a former insurgent stronghold northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 32 people just days before a crucial election that will determine who will govern the country as American forces depart.

The blasts in Baqouba — including one by a bomber who rode in an ambulance to a hospital and blew himself up there — were the deadliest in more than a month and illustrated the challenges facing Iraqi forces trying to prove they can secure the country after the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of next year.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings but they bore the hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has promised to violently disrupt Sunday’s parliamentary vote and warned Sunnis not to participate in the balloting. Iraqi authorities vowed not to let the insurgents derail the democratic process.

“These attacks aim to terrify people from going to polling stations,” said Fakhri al-Obaidi, spokesman of the Diyala provincial council in Baqouba. “But I am sure that people will insist on voting.”

The violence began about 9 a.m. with a suicide car bomb that targeted a local government housing office near an Iraqi army facility, police spokesman Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi said.

Within minutes, a second suicide car bomb exploded 200 yards down the street near the provincial government headquarters near many police and army personnel.

It was the final bomber, however, who caused the most casualties, by donning a military uniform, pretending to be wounded and riding an ambulance back to the hospital where he blew himself up, Mr. al-Karkhi said. Many of the wounded from the first two bombs were killed in the third attack.

Police later safely detonated a fourth car bomb about 220 yards from the hospital in Baqouba, which was once controlled by al Qaeda in Iraq before a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives led to a drop in violence.

Insurgents often carry out multiple bomb attacks to maximize the number of casualties as rescuers and others rush to the scene to help those affected. Authorities arrested four men suspected of involvement in the bombings and clamped a vehicle ban on the city, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Wednesday’s bombings were the deadliest since Feb. 1, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up among Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad, killing 54 people.

The persistent violence has dealt a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to portray himself and his party as the best chance for stability in the war-torn country.

Deputy Interior Minister Ayden Khalid told reporters later in Baghdad that security forces expect further attacks but will not allow them to interfere with the vote.

Iraqi authorities have vowed to tighten security for the election, including a nationwide vehicle ban, airport closures and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of security forces across the country.

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