BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis voted early today in their country's first free election in a half-century and insurgents made good on threats of violence, launching a deadly suicide bombing and mortar strikes at several polling stations across Iraq. Just hours after polls opened, at least seven people were dead, including two policemen.
Casting his vote, President Ghazi al-Yawer called it Iraq's first step "toward joining the free world."
Despite the heavy attacks, turnout was brisk in some Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods, but the polls were deserted in heavily Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra west and north of Baghdad.
A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen the tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
In restive Mosul in the north, American troops and Iraqi soldiers roamed the streets, using loudspeakers to announce the locations of polling sites and urging people to vote. But streets were deserted.
In the heavily Sunni town of Mahmoudiya in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad, the only cars on the streets were ambulances.
The suicide attack in western Baghdad claimed the life of one policeman and wounded several other people, while mortar attacks in Khan al-Mahawil, 40 miles south of Baghdad, killed another policeman at a polling station.
And a mortar round missed a polling center and hit a nearby home in southwestern Baghdad, killing two people and wounding three others, police Capt. Mohammed Taha said.
Three people were killed when mortars landed near a polling station in Sadr City, the heart of Baghdad's Shiite Muslim community. Seven to eight others were wounded, police said. Two mortars hit near the Ministry of Interior on the city's eastern edge, one witness said.
Heavy explosions and dozens of mortar attacks broke out across several other cities, including Baquoba, Basra and Mosul.
Al-Yawer was among the first to cast his ballot, voting alongside his wife at election headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. After voting, he walked away with an Iraqi flag given to him by a poll worker.
"I'm very proud and happy this morning," al-Yawer told reporters. "I congratulate all the Iraqi people and call them to vote for Iraq."
Several hours later, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi cast his ballot at the same polling station.
Final results will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally was expected late today.
"I don't have a job. I hope the new government will give me a job," said one voter, Rashi Ayash, 50, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi force. "I voted for the rule of law."
The election is a major test of President Bush's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 soldiers.
A spokesman for Iraq's elections commission said all the nearly 5,200 polling stations nationwide were opening on schedule. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops are on the streets and on standby to protect voters.
Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are expected to turn out in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.
"God willing, the elections will be good ... Today's voting is very important," said the head of the main Shiite cleric-endorsed ticket, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.
At one voting center in the heavily Shiite Muslim city of Nasiriyah in the south, about 40 people lined up waiting to vote.
But at a school-turned-polling station in Baghdad's middle-class Karrada neighborhood, a mixed Shiite-Sunni area, only three voters appeared in the first 45 minutes.
Under the eye of sharpshooters looking down from nearby rooftops, the three were searched first at an outer perimeter about 40 yards from the school, then they had to remove their jackets and take batteries from their cell phones before walking through coils of barbed wire.
Overhead, helicopters clattered and a jet fighter roared by. Occasional bursts of machine gun fire echoed through Baghdad's deserted streets.
Voting was brisk as expected in Kurdish-ruled areas of northern Iraq, where voters were also choosing a regional parliament.
"I can't read or write so I ticked the number" of the Kurdish ticket, said Fouad Fattah, 29, a policeman in Irbil. "I was afraid to make a mistake. I hope the Kurds get a great number of votes so that we can rule ourselves."
In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, only seven people showed up in the first two hours of voting at a school in the city center, while in the diverse city of Baquoba, jubilant voters danced and clapped outside a polling station.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, buses hired by city officials picked up people walking toward voting centers to get them there more quickly.
Iraqis will mark two ballots: one to elect the National Assembly, the other for a provincial legislature.
Insurgents have threatened death to any Iraqis who show up to vote. Today an Internet posting claiming to be from an al-Qaida linked group that had previously threatened voters warned: "Democracy and representative councils, brothers, is part of the religion of the infidels. ... Accepting them is ... renouncing Islam."
Iraqi officials have predicted that up to eight million of 14 million voters - just over 57 percent - will turn out for today's election. Voters in the Kurdish-run north also will select a regional parliament.
Throughout the Sunni heartland, there was little enthusiasm for the election.
"We will not vote because our houses have been destroyed," said Alaa Hussein of the Sunni city of Fallujah, which fell to a U.S. assault against insurgents in November.
We don't have electricity or water. The Iraqi National Guard fire at us 24 hours a day. So who will we vote for?"
By contrast, enthusiasm among Shiites was high.
"There's joy everywhere," said Mohammed Hussein, who lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries cast absentee ballots on the second of three days of voting abroad, and officials said that by late Saturday, about two-thirds of those registered had voted so far. Iraqi leaders had been disappointed that less than a quarter of the estimated 1.2 million expatriate Iraqis eligible to vote worldwide registered to do so.
Despite the strict security and a nighttime curfew, guerrillas hit the U.S. Embassy compound in the Green Zone with a rocket Saturday evening, killing a Defense Department civilian and a Navy sailor and wounding four other Americans, according to State Department spokesman Noel Clay in Washington.
The Defense Department released grainy footage shot from an unmanned spy drone of what it said showed figures shooting a rocket and running away. It then showed U.S. soldiers entering a house where the suspected militants sought refuge, and said seven people were arrested.
Another American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. More than 40 American troops have been killed in the past three days.
Bush said in his weekly radio address from the White House that the election "will add to the momentum of democracy."
"The terrorists and those who benefited from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein know that free elections will expose the emptiness of their vision," he said.
A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists.
However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.