BAGHDAD — Gunmen apparently targeting political candidates staged attacks around Iraq on Thursday, leaving at least three people dead as Iraqi forces began imposing a full-scale security clampdown in advance of voting for provincial council seats.
The level of violence around Iraq is significantly lower than in past years, but Saturday's election is seen as an important test of Iraqi self-reliance and competence as the U.S. military turns over more authorities to local forces.
Blanket security measures were scheduled to take effect beginning Friday, including closing Iraq's international borders, ordering traffic bans across Baghdad and major cities and halting air traffic. Hundreds of women, including teachers and civic workers, have been recruited to help search women voters after a rise in female suicide bombers last year.
In Baghdad, a Sunni candidate, Omer Farooq al-Ani, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he stepped from his home in the western Amiriya neighborhood, said a police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Al-Ani, a member of his neighborhood council, was running for the provincial seat under the biggest Sunni political group, the Islamic Iraq Party.
Northeast of Baghdad, another Sunni candidate was killed in a shooting ambush as he walked from a rally in Mandli in Diyala Province. The candidate, Abbas Farhan, was killed along with two others.
In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen fired from a passing car and killed a candidate and former army officer, Hazim Salim, a member of the Unity List, a group of independent Sunni politicians.
The two attacks were reported by police in Diyala and Mosul, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give the information.
The U.S. military is taking a sideline role in direct security for the elections, but plan to send heavy troop deployments into the streets during the voting.
A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, said there is always the risk of attacks by groups "who see the progress of democracy as a threat to them" _ a reference to insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq that have been weakened but are still active.
"They want an Iraq that is divided according to sectarian lines, an Iraq that is ruled by fear, they want an Iraq that does not know the rule of law, so these are the groups that do not want democracy to move forward," he told a news conference.
In another possible flashpoint before the vote, Iraqi security forces detained three candidates loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr following a political rally in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr controls the powerful Mahdi Army militia and is desperate to maintain a strong political hand despite pressures from Iraq's government.
"Detaining the candidates is a serious precedent," said a parliament member in the Sadrist bloc, Baha al-Araji.
More than 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 seats in 14 of the country's 18 provinces.