Car bomb kills four at Shia shrine as Iraq prepares to go to the polls

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A car bomb killed four Iranian pilgrims near Iraq's holiest Shia Muslim shrine yesterday, on the eve the parliamentary elections. Sunni Islamist militants have vowed to wreck the vote. The blast destroyed two buses parked near the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, which draws millions of pilgrims from Iraq and Iran each year.

At least 49 people have been killed in the past few days. Today's election is a test for Iraq's democracy; its outcome will help determine whether the country avoids a relapse into violence as US forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011. The bid by the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to win a second term on a platform of providing services and security is being challenged by former Shia partners and a cross-sectarian, secularist group headed by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Insurgents have warned Iraqis, especially the minority Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam Hussein, to stay at home today. Sunni militants say the vote will solidify power for Shia parties they see as hostile, heretical and unfit to rule. It is possible that no clear winner will emerge from the election, setting the scene for lengthy negotiations to form a coalition government and perhaps making Iraq vulnerable to renewed conflict.

The election is unfolding as global investors weigh opportunities in Iraq, which has the world's third largest oil reserves but is also desperate to diversify a shattered economy. Overall, violence in the country has fallen, despite a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad since August.

Campaigning officially ended on Friday. Millions of Iraqis will go to the polls from 7am today amid heavy security, including a vehicle ban aimed at preventing car bombings. Around 600,000 people within Iraq have already voted, mostly soldiers, police, detainees, hospital staff and patients, and another 1.4 million refugees and expatriates outside the country have been eligible to cast ballots early, officials said.

The blast in Najaf, where authorities hope religious tourism will buttress rebuilding and growth, left a metre-wide crater in the pavement.