BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis embraced democracy in large numbers Sunday, standing in long lines to vote in defiance of mortar attacks, suicide bombers and boycott calls. Pushed in wheelchairs or carts if they couldn't walk, the elderly, the young and women in veils cast ballots in Iraq's first free election in a half-century.
"We broke a barrier of fear," said Mijm Towirish, an election official.
Uncertain Sunni turnout, a string of insurgent attacks that killed 44 and the crash of a British military plane drove home that chaos in Iraq isn't over yet.
Yet the mere fact the vote went off seemed to ricochet instantly around a world hoping for Arab democracy and fearing Islamic extremism.
"I am doing this because I love my country, and I love the sons of my nation," said Shamal Hekeib, 53, who walked with his wife 20 minutes to a polling station near his Baghdad home.
"We are Arabs, we are not scared and we are not cowards," Hekeib said.
With helicopters flying low and gunfire close by, at least 200 voters stood calmly in line at midday outside one polling station in the heart of Baghdad. Inside, the tight security included at least four body searches, and a ban on lighters, cell phone batteries, cigarette packs and even pens.
The feeling was sometimes festive. One election volunteer escorted a blind man back to his home after he cast his vote. A woman too frail to walk by herself arrived on a cart pushed by a young relative. Entire families showed up in their finest clothes.
But for the country's minority Sunni Arabs, who held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, the day was not as welcome.
No more than 400 people voted in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, and in the heavily Sunni northern Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah, where Saddam made his last known public appearance in early April 2003, the four polling places never even opened.
The electoral commission said it believed, based on that anecdotal information, that turnout among the estimated 14 million eligible Iraqi voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it would be some time before any precise turnout figure was confirmed.
The ticket endorsed by the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was the pre-voting favorite, while Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate was also considered strong. but officials said it might take 10 days to determine the vote's winner.
After dark in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Sunday night, election workers crouched on the ground and counted ballots by the glow of an oil lamp because of a power outage.
"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," said President Bush, who called the election a success. He promised the United States would continue training Iraqi soldiers, hoping they can soon secure a country America invaded nearly two years ago to topple Saddam.
Iraqis, the U.S. president said, had "firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology" of terrorists.
The vote to elect a 275-National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures was only the first step on Iraq's road to self-rule and stability. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.
If that government proves successful by drawing in the minority Sunni Arabs who partly shunned the election, the country could stabilize, hastening the day when 150,000 U.S. troops can go home.
With the polls just closed, international debate immediately turned to just that issue. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid plans to call Monday for President Bush's administration to outline an exit strategy for Iraq. And Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said his country will keep troops only if the country's newly elected government wants them.
Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, told Britain's Channel 4 News he expected there would be no need for U.S. troops any longer than 18 months because that's when he anticipates Iraq's security forces will be trained well enough to handle the job themselves.
But in comments to CBS' "Face The Nation," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not say whether U.S. forces would leave the country in great numbers now that the vote is complete, and Bush did not mention any U.S. military withdrawals in his statement.
On Sunday, coalition soldiers raced through Baghdad's streets in Humvees and tried to coax people to vote with loudspeakers in Ramadi, a Sunni city where anti-U.S. attacks are frequent. Iraqi police served as guards at most polling stations and U.S. troops had strict orders to stay away unless Iraqi security forces called for help.
At the Louisiana National Guard headquarters near Baghdad, nervous U.S. officers paced the halls, muttering, "So far, so good," after the first 30 minutes of polling passed without attacks.
But the violence soon broke out.
While a driving ban seemed to discourage car bombs, the insurgents improvised, strapping on belts of explosives to launch their suicide missions.
At least 44 died in the suicide and mortar attacks on polling stations, including nine suicide bombers. The al-Qaida affiliate led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for at least four attacks.
Most attacks were in Baghdad, but one of the deadliest came in Hillah to the south, when a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four others.
In another reminder of the dangers that persist in Iraq, a British C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed north of Baghdad. The wreckage was strewn over a large area. No cause was given, but Britain's Press Association, quoting military sources, said about 10 British troops were believed to have died. Elsewhere, one U.S. serviceman died in fighting in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Despite the string of attacks and mortars that boomed first in the morning and then after dark, a people steeled to violence by years of war, sanctions, the brutality of Saddam's regime and U.S. military occupation were not deterred from the polls.
In the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad, a whiskery, stooped Abed Hunni walked an hour with his wife to reach a polling site in Musayyib. "God is generous to give us this day," he said.
And in heavily Shiite areas in the far south and mostly Kurdish regions in the north, some saw the vote as settling a score with the former dictator, Saddam.
"Now I feel that Saddam is really gone," said Fatima Ibrahim, smiling as she headed home after voting in Irbil. She was 14 and a bride of just three months when her husband, father and brother were rounded up in a campaign of ethnic cleansing under Saddam. None have ever been found.
Many cities in the Sunni triangle north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji, were virtually empty of voters also.
A low Sunni turnout, if that turns out to be the case, could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman and candidate for the National Assembly, said he believes the best hope for harmony lies in giving Sunnis a significant role in drafting the country's new constitution.
"The main thing, I think, is we should really have a constitution written by representatives of all segments of Iraq's population," Pachachi said. "I think it would improve the security situation."
Across the largely authoritarian-ruled Arab world, where dislike and distrust of U.S. power and American intentions dominates the public debate, some dismissed the poll as a U.S.-orchestrated sham. Others hoped it might prove a catalyst for a region-wide democratic push.
Iraq's elections are a "good omen for getting rid of dictatorship," said Yemeni political science student Fathi al-Uraiqi.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - sure to win his own country's much-less-democratic vote later this year - telephoned Allawi to congratulate him on the smooth election, saying he hoped it would "open the way for the restoration of calm and stability" in Iraq.
next in iraq?
Iraq's elections Sunday merely began a process intended to transform the country into a democracy. The tally of the votes is only the first of several steps to come:
n Iraqi election officials said it might take 10 days to determine the vote's winner and said they had no firm estimate of turnout among the 14 million eligible voters.
n The 275-member transitional National Assembly will first choose a largely ceremonial president and two vice presidents. They, in turn, will pick a prime minister and a Cabinet that must be ratified by the assembly.
n The assembly, elected for an 11-month term, will draft a permanent constitution.
n Iraqis will hold a national referendum in October to accept or reject the constitution.
n If the document is approved, Iraqis will vote in December for a permanent government under the constitution.
n If the document is rejected, Iraqis will repeat the whole process, voting for a new transitional assembly to draft a new constitution.
- Associated Press