BAGHDAD, Iraq -- More Iraqis than anticipated defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots Sunday in Iraq's first free election in a half-century. The violence continued unabated, however, with insurgent attacks on polling stations killing at least 44 people, including nine suicide bombers.
Optimism about the vote was tempered by low turnout among Sunni Muslims, which could undermine the new government and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
President George Bush, speaking on Sunday from the White House, said the Iraqis had made the election "a resounding success."
"Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy," he said, and had "firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists."
Women in black abayas whispered prayers at the sound of a nearby explosion as they waited to vote at one Baghdad polling station. But the mood elsewhere was triumphant, with long lines in many places in the city: Civilians and policemen danced with joy outside one polling site, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder toward polling centers.
“This is democracy,” said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.
Shiite clerics encouraged their followers to vote, and Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, turned out in large numbers.
But a group of Sunni clerics had called for its followers to boycott the polls, which were largely deserted throughout the day in many cities in the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, particularly in Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji. In Baghdad’s mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood’s four polling centers did not open at all, residents said. In Samarra, north of Baghdad, stations were empty for hours, but later hundreds of people showed up.
Sunni Muslims, who make up about 20 percent of the population, prospered under Saddam Hussein's regime and now fear they will be cut out of the political process.
Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul — Iraq’s third-largest city and a center of insurgent violence in past months. But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi soldiers.
Insurgent attacks started within two hours of the polls opening, and over the day there were eight suicide attacks, mostly against polling sites, involving bombers on foot who strapped explosives to their bodies since private cars were banned from the streets.
In one of the deadliest attacks, a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters to the polls in Hillah, south of Baghdad, and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four others, Polish military officials said.
Deadly mortar volleys hit Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and struck voters at several sites in Balad, and Kirkuk in the north and Mahawil south of the capital. Across the country, at least 35 people and nine suicide bombers were killed.
A Web site statement purportedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group claimed responsibility for election day attacks, although the claim could not be verified. The Jordanian militant, whose group is allied with al-Qaida, is said to be behind many of the suicide car-bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq. His group vowed to kill people who ventured out to vote.
A few hours after polls closed, thunderous explosions reverberated through Baghdad. T heir cause was unknown.
Separately, a British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad, and the wreckage was strewn over a large area, officials said.
The election will create a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures. The assembly will draw up the country’s permanent constitution and will select a president and two deputy presidents, who in turn will name a new prime minister and Cabinet to serve for 11 months until new elections are held.
Casting his vote, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called it “the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny.”
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 troops. More than 1,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a Marine killed in combat Sunday in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.
Voter turnout was brisk in Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, and U.S. officials said some stations ran out of ballots. Even in the small town of Askan in the so-called “triangle of death” south of Baghdad, 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centers. More walked toward the polls.
“Am I scared? Of course I’m not scared. This is my country,” said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya cloak.
At one polling place in Baghdad, soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance, and in Baqouba, voters jumped and clapped to celebrate the historic day.
In Ramadi, U.S. troops tried to coax voters with loudspeakers, preaching the importance of every ballot. The governor of the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, went on the radio to lobby for a higher turnout. “This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children’s future,” he said.
Security was tight. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters, who entered polling stations under loops of razor wire and the watchful eye of rooftop sharpshooters.
Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday.
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.
The elections will also give Kurds a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of marginalization under the Baath Party that ruled the country for 34 years.
Iraqis in 14 nations also held the last of three days of overseas balloting on Sunday, with officials in Australia extending polling station hours because of an earlier riot and bomb scare.