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In Iraq, Early Vote Is Marred by Attacks

Joao Silva for The New York Times

Iraqi police officers and soldiers celebrated on Thursday after casting their ballots in early voting for the parliamentary elections. More Photos »

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BAGHDAD — Iraq opened its polls early on Thursday for hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers responsible for protecting the country’s electorate, and they came under assault themselves.

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Helmiy al-Azawi/Reuters

Iraqi security forces at the site of one of the series of bombings on Wednesday in the city of Baquba northeast of Bagdhad. More Photos »

In all, three attacks in Baghdad, two in Mosul and another in Diyala struck near polling stations where Iraqi forces mustered to vote, a potentially ominous foreshadowing of the violence extremists have vowed to carry out in an effort to mar Sunday’s pivotal election of a new Parliament.

There were other problems that could also undermine the elections and their legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the world. Despite months of preparations by election officials and the United Nations, irregularities were reported at polling stations across the country, with thousands of names of soldiers and police officers missing from voter rolls.

“This is an attack on our freedom to vote,” one police officer in Falluja said, failing to find his name on the lists of eligible voters. “Is this how the police are rewarded for their sacrifices?”

The first day of voting, widely viewed as a measure of Iraq’s still uncertain transition from dictatorship to democracy after the American invasion seven years ago, was one of jarring contrasts.

Soldiers in one part of Baghdad joyously waved their weapons and purple-stained fingers after casting their ballots, while only a few miles away, their colleagues picked through debris and bits of flesh in the gruesome aftermath of a suicide attack that struck a truckload of 27 soldiers who had just voted.

At least a dozen people were killed across Baghdad — seven of them soldiers — and scores more were wounded, according to official counts that soldiers and police officers on the scene suggested understated the actual toll.

Compared with the nihilistic bloodshed of the darkest years of the conflict here, and some of the large-scale attacks that Iraq has witnessed in recent months, the violence was small in scale. But with the American military largely operating in the background, it underscored the country’s precariousness ahead of the vote. In Diyala, a volatile province northeast of Baghdad, fliers and CDs scattered in the streets threatened to kill anyone who voted.

The government has undertaken overwhelming security precautions, with months of planning and training with American military advisers. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who faces a fierce contest to win a second term, declared a holiday from Thursday to Sunday, allowing security forces to vote early so they would be mobilized in force on election day.

Far from experiencing a holiday atmosphere, though, much of the country felt under siege. Iraqis prepared for the election the way that Americans do when battening down for a hurricane. Residents cleared shops of meat, potatoes and other groceries, as prices soared. The usual congestion of traffic dissipated as a dust storm darkened the city at midday, creating a sense of gloom rather than celebration.

In Baghdad and other cities, soldiers filled the streets near polling stations, as did scores of armored vehicles. Iraqi and American officials have braced themselves for violence, imposing strict controls on pedestrian and vehicular traffic and cordoning off entire streets and neighborhoods. Thursday’s attacks made it clear there were still gaps in security.

Metal detectors stood sentry beside blast walls outside the polling stations — most of them schools — and yet at at least half a dozen sites, they were unplugged, effectively useless. One officer claimed that the one near him was solar powered, while another said that it was safer to pat down voters by hand than to rely on machines.

While the government opened a handful of polling centers to the news media on Thursday, they tried to bar correspondents and photographers from the site of the attacks, seemingly to avoid having the image of the day be bloodshed. At the scene of a suicide attack in the once upscale neighborhood of Mansour, the carnage suggested that the death toll was far higher than three killed, as the government’s official account had it.

As a truck overfilled with 27 soldiers, waving and cheering, left the polling station, a suicide bomber approached on foot and blew himself up, according to a policeman at the scene. The force of the blast shattered shop windows on either side of the street and scattered debris and charred body parts. Two empty shoes lay on the ground alongside blood and shards of glass.

Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Falluja, Baquba and Samarra, Iraq.

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