BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 -- Millions of Iraqis turned out Sunday to cast ballots in the country's first free elections in a half-century, the ranks of voters surging as attacks by insurgents proved less ferocious than feared and enthusiasm spilled over into largely Sunni Arab regions where hardly a campaign poster had appeared.
At least 45 people, including a U.S. Marine shot while on combat patrol in Anbar province, were reported killed in suicide bombings, shootings and mortar and rocket attacks. But for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the haggard capital and other parts of Iraq took on the veneer of a festival, as crowds danced, chanted and played soccer in streets secured by thousands of Iraqi and American forces. From the Kurdish north to the largely Shiite south, at thousands of polling stations, voters delivered a similar message: The elections represented their moment not only to seize the future, but also to reject a legacy of dictatorship and the bloodshed and hardship that have followed the U.S. invasion.
Iraqi children in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood take advantage of the empty streets. Most cars were banned from the roads as a safety precaution against potential suicide bombings.
(Hadi Mizban -- AP)
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Lines that began small at polling stations grew during the 10 hours of voting, sometimes dramatically. After casting ballots, many Iraqis triumphantly pointed their index fingers, stained with the purple ink that indicated they had voted, and hardly flinched at gunfire and explosions that interrupted the day. At one station, a woman showered election workers with handfuls of candy. At another, a veiled, elderly woman kept repeating, "God's blessings on you" to election workers. Across town, three Iraqi soldiers carried an elderly man in a wheelchair two blocks to a voting booth.
"It's like a wedding. I swear to God, it's a wedding for all of Iraq," said Mohammed Nuhair Rubaie, the director of a polling station in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Tunis where, after a slow start, hundreds of voters gathered as the cloudless day progressed. "No one has ever witnessed this before. For a half-century, no one has seen anything like it.
"And we did it ourselves."
Officials loosely estimated voter turnout at 60 percent nationwide -- a figure that, if accurate, would make Sunday's vote perhaps the freest, most competitive election in an authoritarian Arab world and a rare victory for the Bush administration in Iraq. U.S. and allied Iraqi leaders had looked to the vote as a turning point in a troubled two-year occupation beset by almost daily carnage, rampant crime and deep disenchantment with the United States. Those officials had expressed hope that a strong turnout would deliver elusive legitimacy to the new government, enabling it to defeat the insurgency in Sunni regions and begin a long-awaited economic revival.
In the weeks before the vote, insurgents had vowed to disrupt the elections, and on Sunday they carried out the attacks that have become their trademark: suicide bombings, car bombings and mortar shellings spaced, at one point in the morning, a few seconds apart. Police reported nine suicide bombings, the majority of them carried out by assailants on foot because most cars were banned from streets.
In one of the deadliest attacks, a bomber on a minibus carrying voters to polls in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killed himself and at least four others. In Baghdad, mortar shells struck the neighborhood of Sadr City, and a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a polling station in the Zayuna neighborhood. Other attacks were reported in Balad and Kirkuk in the north and in Mahawil, south of the capital.
Late in the day, a British C-130 military transport plane crashed near Balad, 35 miles north of Baghdad, scattering wreckage over a wide area. Britain's Press Association reported Sunday night that at least 10 troops were killed.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group led by Jordanian guerrilla Abu Musab Zarqawi, asserted responsibility for many of the suicide attacks Sunday in a statement posted on the Internet. The statement could not be immediately verified.
Also on Sunday, a U.S. official said that the insurgents who launched the Saturday night rocket attack that killed two employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had been captured or killed. "We got them," the official said, referring to the actions of a combat pilot who saw the flare of the rocket launch and directed ground forces to the insurgents' position.
In Sunni-populated regions of central and northern Iraq, where the insurgency has been most fierce, Sunday's turnout was far lower than elsewhere, a sign of the guerrillas' strength in those areas and their ability to intimidate.
Despite rumors that food rations would be taken away if residents failed to vote, few defied threats by insurgents to, in the words of one leaflet, "wash the streets" with the blood of voters.
In Ramadi, a western city of roughly 200,000 people along the Euphrates River, residents said only six people voted at one polling station: the provincial governor, three of his deputies, the representative of the Communist Party and the police chief. In Dhuluyah, a town north of Baghdad along the Tigris, the eight polling stations never opened, residents said, and in other towns in the region, voters usually numbered in the dozens as others ignored appeals broadcast by patrolling U.S. soldiers to vote.