IRBIL, Iraq, Jan. 30 -- Dressed in a long green velvet dress and black scarf, Adhima Mustafa huddled against the chill and fog in the back of a dented pickup truck as she and five female relatives shared a long, bumpy ride to their first free elections.
The women had set out at dawn Sunday to cast ballots in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq, but the first two polling centers they visited turned them away because ballot boxes were already full, Mustafa said. They ended up in a farming village outside Irbil, the regional capital, where they were still waiting to vote nine hours after they had left home.
Atya Ismail, 90, is lifted to cast her ballot at a polling station near the Kurdish mountain village of Salahuddin in northern Iraq. Many traveled far to vote.
(Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)
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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.
But Mustafa, 22, who had to check her national identification when asked her age, said the trip was worth it. "We are very happy to be free," she said, beaming.
For Iraq's ethnic Kurds, Sunday was a day of reckoning after more than three decades of brutal oppression under former president Saddam Hussein. After casting their ballots, voters triumphantly held up purple ink-stained fingers, a symbolic poke in the eye of a dictatorship that had subjected the country's Kurdish population to displacement, imprisonment, torture, execution and even attack with chemical weapons.
Though official turnout numbers were not available and estimates were scarce, polling centers around the region were jammed with voters who spoke of ethnic pride, the endurance of their people and their ultimate quest for independence. Few talked about Iraq or about being Iraqi, indicating just how disconnected Iraqi Kurds feel from the central government in Baghdad.
The major Kurdish political parties agreed to put forward a unified slate of candidates for the national elections, an extraordinary compromise for such historic rivals as the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Party leaders said unity was necessary to ensure that Kurds would end up with a large block of representatives in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly, which will choose new governmental leaders and draft a constitution.
The head of the KDP estimated Sunday that 2 million Kurds voted in the elections, which the Kurds hope will give them 25 percent to 30 percent of the seats in the new assembly.
Voters in the region participated in three ballots -- one for the central government, one for regional councils and one for the Kurdish parliament. But the real question for many Kurds was whether the elections would prove the first step toward an independent state.
In tents set up outside polling centers -- with the approval of the regional government -- the Kurdistan Referendum Movement asked voters if they wanted an individual homeland, free from Iraq.
"It's an unofficial vote," said Besar Faris, 18, a university student who, with Ismael Mohammad, 19, had hung a banner advertising the referendum on a green tent outside a polling center in Irbil. "But Kurds are a big nation that until now does not have any rights of a state or an independent state."
"Like other nationals of the world, we want to be independent," Mohammad said.
Kurdish leaders in the central government have steered clear of promising independence. At a news conference Sunday in Salahuddin, where the KDP is headquartered, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said true representation in the central government should be considered the more important goal.
"The Kurdish political leaders have made it very clear that we want a united, federalist, pluralistic Iraq," said Zebari, the only Kurd to hold a top cabinet spot in Iraq's interim government.
An hour later, Massoud Barzani, president of the KDP, said he hoped to see an independent Kurdistan in his lifetime. "The people of Kurdistan have a right to their own state," he said.