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A triple suicide bombing in the city of Baquba in Iraq’s Diyala province killed dozens on Wednesday morning in the run-up to Sunday’s Iraq election. It was the largest attack in a rising tide of violence that has challenged efforts by Iraqi security forces to maintain calm for the March 7 vote, only the country’s second such contest since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The number of casualties from the attack continued to climb throughout the morning, with international media reporting at least 30 dead and dozens wounded. The New York Times reports that 15 of the victims are members of the security forces.
Al Jazeera reports that the three-pronged attack struck at carefully chosen points around the city, the capital of Diyala, about 35 miles northeast of Baghad. One attacker drove a car full of explosives into the headquarters of a police rapid reaction force, while a second set off a car bomb at a police checkpoint near a main provincial building. That second blast appeared to target the office of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari's political party, according to The Washington Post. Jafari, a Shiite, is a candidate in the election.
A third attacker struck shortly after the first two blasts, says the BBC, targeting a city hospital where victims had been taken for treatment. Reuters reports that the third attacker was wearing a police uniform and entered the hospital on foot before blowing himself up.
Sunday’s vote is an important test for Iraq, says Reuters, as American forces prepare for the end of combat operations in August and a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. It's also an important test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who came to power in 2006 and bills himself as the best candidate to assure security.
But sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia are running high, with many fearing a return to the sectarian violence that engulfed the country during the darkest days of the war. Those concerns have been in the air since the first day of campaigning, as the Monitor reported in February.
In yet another sign of heightened Arab-Kurd tension just days from Iraq elections, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan told the Monitor that the governor of the adjoining Arab-majority province will be arrested if he enters Kurdish-controlled areas.
To confront that tension head on, the BBC reports, “Iraqi police and military are mounting a vast nationwide operation involving hundreds of thousands of personnel” aimed at preventing violence before the election.
Reuters reports that while the campaign season has been marked by assassinations and other forms of “political violence,” until today their strategy had succeeded in preventing large attacks. There had been no “major assaults by suicide bombers like those that devastated public buildings and hotels in Baghdad in January, December, October, and August.”
The relative lack of major assaults may be cold comfort, though, as smaller–scale acts of violence have taken their toll. The New York Times says that the country has seen a “spike” in violence during in the last several weeks that has killed twice as many people in February as in January.
Most of the daily attacks are targeted bombings, shootings and assassinations. Since August, militants have also managed to pull off a series of spectacular attacks on government buildings and other institutions, killing hundreds and undermining the public’s confidence in the Iraqi security forces.
Indeed, while Baquba may have seen the first large scale attack of the campaign season, it is not the first high profile triple bombing in recent memory. In January bombers targeted three well-known Baghdad hotels, including one that has been home to several Monitor correspondents, killing more than 30 people.