BAGHDAD, April 19 (UPI) -- Healing the rift between Shiite and Sunni communities in Iraq is important for the country's post-war recovery, a former U.S. defense official said.
More than 8,000 candidates are competing for 400 or so seats at stake in Iraqi provincial council elections Saturday. The elections will be the first since U.S. combat forces left the country in December 2011.
U.N. special envoy for Iraq Martin Kobler told Voice of America that Iraqi voters need assurances they can take part in the political process safely.
"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.
At least 27 people were killed in a suicide bombing Thursday in Baghdad and more than two dozen were killed in similar attacks throughout the country earlier this week.
Violence in Iraq prompted authorities to weigh the suspension of elections in some provinces, notably Ninevah and Anbar. Anbar was once the seat of the Iraqi insurgency and now hosts a Sunni-led opposition movement against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
Kobler said the situation in the two provinces was "not ideal."
Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official now at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said underlying issues were cause for concern.
"The polarization of Sunnis and Shiites is becoming a far more serious problem than (anything related to) delaying elections," he said.