BAGHDAD — The day started with an air of festivity.
Army trucks ferried soldiers to polling stations so that they could vote, and police officers showed off their inked fingers. But, as is often the case in Iraq, bloodshed cast a pall.
More than a million members of Iraq’s security forces — as well as prisoners and hospital patients and staff members — voted in parliamentary elections Monday, two days ahead of the rest of the country so that they can be on duty during the main balloting.
On the seventh floor of Baghdad Medical City’s towering hospital overlooking the Tigris, those unable to make it to the polls had the ballot boxes brought to them.
The soldiers here, largely injured fighting in the western province of Anbar and north of Baghdad, are bearing the brunt of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s war against an al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency in Anbar — a conflict that is edging ever closer to the capital.
The bedridden soldiers, bandaged and broken, cast their votes. Ali Aati, 35, is lucky to have survived a sniper round that struck the back of his head four days ago — 11 of the 14 colleagues who were with him at the time died.
Analysts say the four-month-old insurgency pitting a largely Shiite army against extremist Sunni fighters, will chip away at Maliki’s support. But, despite his injuries, Aati, sees no alternative. “He’s up to the challenge,” the soldier says of the incumbent.
Others say that Maliki has stirred sectarianism, exacerbating Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite rifts.
Scarred by shrapnel, Montadhar Shakir Abed, 23, whose legs were fractured in a grenade strike in Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, has just finished casting his ballot for Maliki when an injured soldier is rushed into his room on a stretcher.
A bomb has struck a polling station at a school about a mile away. It is the polling place closest to the hospital, and many of its security staff have gone there to vote.
A police officer who provides security at the hospital gets an update from a friend. “Wissam, we can’t get hold of Wissam. His phone is off.”
He had gone to vote.
Downstairs in the emergency ward, the wounded are rushed in. Two police officers prop up another, who is bleeding from the head. Later, the wounded are brought upstairs one by one, some of the less seriously injured joining their colleagues on the seventh floor, who are still casting their ballots.
A 28-year-old military police officer, his face contorted and swollen with blood, was about 20 feet away when the suicide bomber struck at the polling station. The officer declines to be named.
He says the bomber, wearing a pink shirt, had looked suspicious. He strode toward the voting place but turned back at the first line of security personnel, perhaps realizing he would not make it inside.
If not for his body armor, the military police officer says, he would have been dead. The bomber looked Iraqi, the officer says, his voice laced with disappointment.
An electoral official comes by to find out whether the injured man wants to vote. He was planning to cast his ballot for Maliki but no longer feels like voting. He brushes away the official.
Elsewhere in the hospital, news about Wissam has arrived. The 36-year-old was one of two people killed in the suicide bombing. About 50 people were killed across the country.
Wissam’s family members, including two young sons, arrive at the hospital to collect his body. They beat their chests, while women shriek in anguish. When released, his remains will be taken to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to be interred beside other fallen soldiers. The family has called ahead. The grave is being dug.