BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 -- Explosions echoed across Iraqs capital and several other large cities shortly after polls opened Sunday, as insurgents mounted a violent campaign to disrupt the countrys first democratic election in nearly half a century.
Early reports indicated the attacks were mostly mortar and missile fire aimed at polling stations, but a suicide car bomb killed an Iraqi policeman who challenged the vehicle as it approached a polling station in western Baghdad. The barrage followed a Saturday night missile attack on the U.S. embassy that killed two Americans and wounded five.
An Iraqi traffic policeman is one of the early Sunday morning voters, as he casts his ballot during the country's national elections in the southern city of Basra.
(Atef Hassan -- Reuters)
The success and timing of the rocket attack, after almost two years in which mortar shells fired at the embassy and other targets in the six-square-mile Green Zone fell largely at random and seldom inflicted major damage or casualties, underscored the potential threat posed by insurgents who for months have threatened to disrupt Sundays poll.
Final deliveries of more than 7 million pounds of ballot boxes, voting forms, cardboard booths and indelible purple ink to stain voters fingers were made Saturday to about 5,000 polling sites across the country. It remained unclear, however, how many of Iraqs estimated 14 million eligible voters would turn out in the face of daily threats.
"They should take part because this is the future in the making and people have to take their fate in their own hands," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said in an interview with British television. "I ask them to participate in the elections whether they are inside or outside Iraq: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians."
"We have been waiting for this moment for a month," said Malik Adan Hamid, 26, a polling worker at the Fine Arts Institute in Baghdads Mansour district. "There is no fear at all. We were trained for this."
"The most important thing is that fear has no place in our hearts any more," said Samir Sabih, 37, a businessman at a polling center in Baghdads largely Shiite Karrada neighborhood, where hundreds waited to vote. "This is the first time in my life I go to a polling center freely."
The earliest turnout appeared to follow predicted lines: High in the countrys Shiite Muslim south and Kurdish north, where populations disenfranchised by the government of Saddam Hussein embraced the opportunity to gain power in Baghdad -- and low in areas dominated by the Sunni Arabs where the insurgency has been centered.
In at least two cities in the Sunni Triangle polling stations were staffed by Iraqi soldiers and police. In at least one other, polls had not opened two hours after the official 7 a.m. start time.
"I came here today because Im not frightened by any attack on us," said Mohammed Jaffar Ali Saadi, 43, in a crowd of several dozen people looking to vote at the Beirut School in Baqubah, the city northeast of Baghdad where poll workers stayed away. "I came here to vote and to give my support to whoever deserves it."
In Najaf, the Shiite holy city that embodies Shiite Muslim hopes for the elections, a light early turnout meant several dozen people at one station in the first hour. Among the first out was Najaha Hassan Rahadi, 58, who broke into tears when asked why she was voting.
"Six of my brothers were executed, and I spent two years in jail" under Saddam Hussein, she said from her wheelchair. "I want to elect a government that represents me."
In Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraqi National Guard assumed the role of election workers inside one school, as more than 100 U.S. forces took up positions outside. Loudspeakers mounted on Humvees urged people to come and vote, but the streets were empty of all but soldiers.
No U.S. forces were seen in Tikrit, Husseins home town. But resignations among poll workers forced those remaining to press police officers into finishing last-minute preparations that delayed the opening for about an hour. No voters were waiting, however.