BAGHDAD – Homicide 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 homicide 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 homicide 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, 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.
Mahmoud Fadil, 50, said he was heading to the electric company's office when the force of the explosion tossed him in the air.
"I saw others covered with blood lying on the ground and some crying because of wounds caused by shrapnel and the huge blast," he said.
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 homicide bomber blew herself up among Shiite 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 wartorn 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.
Also Wednesday, a senior official in Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said the results of Sunday's vote won't be announced quickly because of the time required to collect votes from abroad and to investigate any complaints. He did not estimate when results would be released.
In Babil province south of Baghdad, police arrested 33 people for distributing leaflets calling for a boycott of the election because it is "supervised by the Americans," a police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.