WASHINGTON— A surge in violence in Iraq is highlighting the security challenges facing the country as it prepares to hold its first election without foreign troop support on Saturday.
In the deadliest of several bombings across Iraq this week, a suicide bomber attacked a Baghdad cafe popular with Iraqi youths Thursday, killing at least 27 people. Nationwide attacks also killed more than 30 people on Monday.
Iraqi authorities have pressed on with plans to hold Saturday's provincial council elections in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces in spite of the violence. More than 8,000 candidates are competing for about 400 seats in the councils.
It will be Iraq's first national vote since U.S. troops left in 2011, ending a mission to train Iraqi forces to secure the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi government held a special round of provincial voting last week for the military and police forces assigned to secure the main polling day.
In an interview with VOA, U.N. Special Representative for Iraq Martin Kobler said the early vote was peaceful and drew a high turnout among security personnel.
"But this was not the real test, (as it involved) only 1,800 or so polling stations," Kobler said. "We now have 13.5 million voters (eligible) to go to 5,000 polling stations in order to cast their ballots. This has to be done in peace and security."
Speaking by phone from Baghdad, Kobler said the killings of at least 13 election candidates and hundreds of other Iraqis in recent weeks in election and non-election related violence has made the situation "very difficult."
"It is the duty of the government to have an atmosphere in which voters and candidates can go to the polls free of intimidation and fear," he said.
Security problems have prompted the Iraqi government to postpone the vote in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh by up to six months.
Kobler said the situation in the two provinces "is not ideal" for elections. But, he said the government should hold them "as soon as possible" to give the population of Anbar and Nineveh the chance to vote.
Analyst Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said Iraq's recent spike in attacks is part of a broader militant campaign to divide the country along ethnic lines.
"The polarization of Sunnis and Shi'ites is becoming a far more serious problem than (anything related to) delaying elections," he said.
Iraq's main political blocs increasingly have appealed to voters' sectarian loyalties in campaigning for the April 20 provincial council election, a key test of their popularity ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
Kobler said he is growing more concerned about that trend.
"It is very important that the political atmosphere in the country improves, that political (blocs) come together in a dialogue to solve their political problems, not to split, use violence or sectarian rhetoric," he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite State of Law coalition has two main rivals for the country's majority Shi'ite vote: the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Sadrist movement of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraq's minority Sunnis have staged months of protests against Mr. Maliki, accusing him of amassing power in Shi'ite hands, marginalizing Sunni leaders and unfairly targeting them for prosecution. His postponement of provincial votes in Anbar and Nineveh added to Sunni resentments.
Several major groups are competing for the Sunni vote. They include the Iraqiya list of Shi'ite politician Ayad Allawi and factions loyal to Sunni Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.
Iraqi sectarian divisions also have been reflected in the decisions of four provinces to stay out of Saturday's vote.
Northern Iraq's three autonomous Kurdish provinces plan to hold their own elections in September. In the ethnically-mixed fourth province of Kirkuk, Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen leaders have failed to agree on how to share power at the local level.
Kobler said the provincial results also will be shaped by how parties deal with issues beyond tribal loyalty.
"People want to have stability, they want security, they want to have basic service delivery like food and electricity. They want to have employment and all these things that are not sufficiently granted (by the authorities)."
Cordesman, a former U.S. State Department and Defense Department official, said previous Iraqi elections have shown that voters have a tendency to oust incumbents for being corrupt and incompetent in office.
Kobler said corruption frequently is a problem in elections. He said the provincial vote also will be a test of how Iraq investigates complaints of fraud.
"Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) will have to take care that the polling stations, booths and ballot boxes are quarantined, and that (votes) are recounted or adequate measures are taken if fraud is detected," he said.
But, Kobler said the election has many safeguards, including 240,000 political activists who will observe polling stations, 271 registered international observers and 2,000 accredited journalists, including 170 foreigners.
Fifteen international election experts with Kobler's U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) also have been advising Iraqi authorities about how to conduct the vote according to global standards.
The U.N. envoy said he is optimistic about Iraq's prospects after the vote. "It has a tremendous history, a rich youth, and is rich in terms of human resources and financial assets."
Cordesman said the election's significance should not be exaggerated. "It will only be important if the results show that there is a really powerful resistance to Prime Minister Maliki's control and consolidation of power," he said. "That is possible."