Explosions kill 38 as polls close in Iraq election


Bomb and rocket attacks killed at least 38 people as Iraqis voted this afternoon in a parliamentary election that put Iraq's security forces and its fledgling democracy to the test before US troops leave.

Blasts rumbled across Baghdad and other cities as scores of mortar rounds, rockets and roadside bombs exploded near polling stations in a campaign to scare voters after Sunni Islamist insurgents had vowed to wreck voting for Iraq's second full-term parliament since the 2003 US invasion.

Polls closed at 5pm (2pm Irish time), ending 10 hours of balloting in which 19 million people were eligible to take part. It could take three days to get results, UN officials say.

Iraq's political course will be decisive for President Barack Obama's plans to halve US troop levels over the next five months and withdraw entirely by end-2011 and was watched closely by oil companies planning to invest billions in Iraq.

In the deadliest incident, 25 people were killed when an explosion blew up a three-storey Baghdad apartment block. Rescuers pulled bodies from the concrete rubble as a woman buried under the debris screamed to be rescued.

Four people were killed in a similar explosion at another residential building and nine others were killed in rocket, mortar and roadside bomb attacks.

Despite the violence, the US military said insurgents had "fallen short" in attempts to intimidate voters. Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said only two polling stations had to be closed briefly for security reasons. 

Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari described the attacks as largely random mortar fire meant to frighten people. "They will not be able to deter the voters," Mr Zebari said.

Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, the Baghdad security spokesman, said most rockets and mortar bombs had been fired from mainly Sunni districts. Officials lifted a car ban aimed at foiling vehicle bombs less than four hours into the vote.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate, had warned Iraqis not to vote and vowed to attack those who defied them.

The 96,000 US troops still in Iraq stayed in the background, underscoring the waning American role in Iraq, but US helicopter gunships provided aerial support.

Voters in the ethnically and religiously divided country were given a choice between Shia Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall and secular rivals.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, urged all parties to accept the election results. "He who wins today may lose tomorrow, and he who loses today may win tomorrow," he said after casting his ballot in the fortified Green Zone enclave.