But both the violence and the Sunni turnout proved to be the wild cards. After a slow start, growing numbers voted in heavily Sunni districts of the capital, including Khadra, Tunis and parts of Adhamiyah, residents said. Crowds in Baqubah, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town northeast of Baghdad, gathered with their children before polls opened and waited for tardy election workers as mortar shells detonated in the distance.
In the northern city of Mosul, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in recent months, turnout grew among both Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds as intense attacks failed to materialize. In the two weeks before the elections, the United States had increased its troop strength in Mosul by 50 percent, from 8,000 to 12,000, and brought in an additional 4,500 Iraqi security forces.
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)
_____More on Elections_____
Photo Gallery: The end of Iraq's Election Day brought indications of strong turnout, but also reports of at least 30 people killed.
Live, 11 a.m. ET: Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid will discuss the elections and the latest news from Iraq.
Transcript: The Post's Jackie Spinner discussed the scene in Irbil, where elation at electing a new Kurdish parliament has Kurds partying in the streets.
Graphic: Voting Sites Attacked
Primer: Iraqi Elections Explained
"God willing, this election will be the nail in the coffin of the terrorists," Abbas Salem, a real estate agent in Mosul, said after voting.
A Commitment to Vote
Across Baghdad, residents -- who had often placed more credibility in the threats of insurgents than in reassurances by the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces -- rejoiced at a casualty count that, while dire, was far lower than on some of the capital's bloodiest days.
"Enough fear," said Najia Abbas, a 46-year-old woman whose family was displaced by fighting in Fallujah.
Along a street in western Baghdad, a man thrust forward his ink-stained finger.
"Whatever they would do, I would still vote," said Hamid Azawi, 57. "Even if I was dead, I would still participate." He hit his chest. "The vote comes from the bottom of my heart."
The election of a 275-member parliament, 18 provincial councils and a legislature in Iraq's Kurdish region involved more than 6,000 organizers who oversaw 140,000 workers and more than 5,000 polling stations. About 14 million people were eligible to vote in Iraq, as well as 1.2 million overseas voters who were allowed to cast ballots in 14 countries. The U.S. government invested heavily in the project but sought to play down its efforts for fear the elections would be seen as an American-engineered process.
Throughout the day, U.S. forces stayed in the background as tens of thousands of Iraqi police officers and soldiers fanned out across towns and cities. For the first time since the fall of Hussein, residents of Baghdad saw Iraqi armor in the streets. The personnel carriers and Soviet-built T-55 tanks were leftovers from the dissolved Iraqi army, now overhauled for service with the reconstituted military. Across the capital, roads, squares and bridges were barricaded and manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops. Police pickups, their sirens blaring, plied streets where children set up soccer goals with piles of shoes.
Independent observers noted some irregularities in the vote. Scattered polling stations opened late, and 61 stayed closed. At some, materials were missing or not delivered and many voters were unsure where polling stations were. Some poll workers did not show up.
"Nonetheless," the Iraqi Election Information Network, a nongovernmental group monitoring the vote, said in a statement, "the election appears to have been conducted without systematic flaws and in accordance with basic international standards."
In all, 111 parties participated in the elections, ranging from organizations composed along Iraq's ethnic and sectarian lines to groups with deep historical roots, such as the Communist Party and constitutional monarchists. Opinion polls showed three parties to have the best prospects: a list that joined the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, the party of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and a largely Shiite coalition that had the tacit endorsement of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential religious leader.
"This is the starting point in the path of democracy, rule of law, prosperity and security to Iraq and the entire region," Allawi said after voting in the fortified Green Zone, which serves as the headquarters of the U.S. and Iraqi administrations.
Abdul Aziz Hakim, whose name led the list of the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance, called the vote the start of "a new era."