Sporadic violence doesn't deter Iraqi voters
Bush calls election a 'resounding success'
CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports on voter enthusiasm.
Voters undeterred by sporadic violence.
Jubilant Iraqis taste democracy.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Millions of Iraqis cast ballots Sunday in the nation's first free election in half a century -- a vote hailed by officials as a success despite sporadic violence that killed more than two dozen people.
"This is the greatest day in the history of this country," Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told CNN.
U.S. State Department spokesman Noel Clay said 5,171 polling centers -- 98.8 percent of the 5,232 that were expected to open -- actually did so.
Vote counting started in polling centers and is expected to continue into Monday, when the International Election Commission of Iraq is planning to take all ballots to its headquarters in Baghdad for recounting.
The IECI has promised to announce official results within 10 days.
Clay said the elections "were very transparent" and that representatives of nongovernmental organizations, political organizations and parties observed the process.
Insurgents had vowed to wash the streets with "voters' blood," and more than a dozen attacks killed at least 28 people and wounded 71 others.
But authorities said extensive security measures prevented more widespread car bombings and other attacks that many had feared would mar the elections.
"The streets of Baghdad were not filled with blood as the threats of terrorist groups had mentioned," election official Faryid Ayar said. "[Terrorists] directed a message to us: the message of killing. And we directed to them the message of elections and freedom and democracy."
After the voting, President Bush said the balloting was a "resounding success" and praised Iraqis who "have taken rightful control of their country's destiny." (Bush transcript)
Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Britain to "embrace the bright future of Iraq's new democracy" after the elections, while expressing condolences to the families of British troops killed in a plane crash north of Baghdad. (Full story)
'Happy with the turnout'
Initial reports indicated voter turnout appeared to be higher than expected, even in Sunni-majority areas where insurgent attacks have occurred on a near daily basis.
Many voters proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers in defiance of the insurgency. Each person who voted dipped his or her finger in ink to prevent people from voting twice.
The IECI clarified an earlier estimate of a 72 percent turnout, saying that the "figures are only very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field."
"What is certainly the case is that turnout has exceeded expectations throughout the country," the statement said.
U.N. election organizer Carlos Valezuela told CNN that though he was "happy with the turnout," it was too early to report numbers.
The Iraqi Election Information Network, a nongovernmental organization backed by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said the elections were conducted with only minor irregularities, "including low turnout and sporadic violence in a few specific areas of Iraq."
In the so-called Sunni Triangle towns north and west of Baghdad, turnout appeared lower than in the largely Shiite and Kurdish provinces.
But Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni member of the former Iraqi Governing Council who had advocated a delay in the vote, said turnout in cities such as Mosul and Falluja "has been far greater than we had expected."
"We hope that the new assembly will invite those parties that have not taken part in the election in joining us in writing the constitution," Pachachi said. "This will pave the way for a far more inclusive election."
There were also questions about the number of registered voters.
Although the IECI and the U.S. State Department said more than 14 million Iraqis were registered, some Iraqi officials gave that same figure for the total number of eligible voters.
Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries, including the United States, had one last opportunity Sunday to cast votes, as the three-day window for out-of-country voting closed.
About 66 percent of Iraqi expatriates who were registered to vote -- 186,619 -- cast ballots in the first two days of their three-day voting period, the United Nations' Iraq out-of-country voting program said Sunday. More than 280,000 expatriates registered for the election.
Voters -- men and women -- streamed to more than 30,000 polling stations set up across the country, with the polling beginning at 7 a.m. (11 p.m. ET Saturday) and ending at 5 p.m. Many waited in line for an hour to cast their votes.
Iraqis were electing a 275-member transitional National Assembly, which will draft a new constitution, and pick the country's next president and two vice presidents. The president, in turn, will select a prime minister. (Structure)
Voters were also electing members of 18 provincial councils. In addition, residents of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region are electing a Kurdish parliament.
A draft of the new constitution is due in August, and it will go before Iraqi voters in an October referendum. If it is approved, a new government will be elected in December and will assume power by year's end.
CNN correspondents reported that turnout varied across the nation.
In former president Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, polling stations were virtually empty. But in other parts of the country booths were packed.
In the northeastern town of Baquba, CNN's Jane Arraf found a polling station where a long line of Iraqi voters chanted and clapped their hands in front of the camera. (On the Scene)
Unofficial figures indicated that 30 percent of eligible voters there came to the polls.
"We are defeating the terrorists as we are coming here," a voter named Saad said, proudly displaying his ink-stained finger.
Further north in the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya, CNN's Nic Robertson reported seeing a 90-year-old woman being taken to a voting booth in a wheelbarrow. Others came on crutches to cast their ballot.
In the southern city of Basra, ITN correspondent Juliet Bremner reported that turnout was almost 90 percent. She said voting was peaceful and orderly, with elated Shiites -- oppressed for decades under Saddam -- "determined to cast their votes in their desire for freedom, peace and food."
The day began with explosions shattering the morning calm in Baghdad, and scattered violence was reported elsewhere in the country.
A statement posted on several Islamist Web sites, purportedly from a group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for Sunday's attacks on polling areas in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.
Insurgents in the capital had earlier distributed fliers warning citizens against participating in the election, claiming they would "wash Baghdad streets with voters' blood."
Eight suicide bombers struck in Baghdad, leaving 11 dead and at least 47 wounded. Other attacks killed a total of 10 and wounded six more in Baghdad, Mosul and Balad, 50 miles north of the capital.
Another blast killed three and wounded 14 on a bus near Hilla, south of Baghdad.(Full story)
In an attack in Baghdad's Sheikh Mar'rof area, near Haifa Street -- considered an insurgent stronghold -- attackers rounded up four voters who had left a polling station and killed them with grenades, Iraqi police said.
Sabah Kadim, a senior adviser in Iraq's Interior Ministry, shrugged off the string of attacks in a CNN interview.
"We have [terrorists] today, we had them yesterday, we will have them tomorrow," he said. "The difference will be that the Iraqi people have elected a government that is legitimate that will be much stronger in dealing with them."
Because of security concerns, names of the 7,000 candidates vying for office were not revealed until the final days of January.
In Baghdad alone, 15,000 U.S. soldiers were on patrol amid travel and weapons bans, and sealed airspace and borders. (Full story)
In addition to the Iraqis killed in attacks on polling stations, two U.S. troops died in combat in western Iraq on Sunday, according to the American military.
'There are no losers'
Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar was among the first to vote Sunday in Baghdad.
"Deep in my heart, I feel that Iraqis deserve free elections," al-Yawar said after casting his ballot.
"All Iraqis are winners today. There are no losers."
He was followed hours later by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who cast his vote, donning his glasses and smiling as he dipped his finger in ink.
But former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, who served under President Reagan, urged observers to resist euphoria.
"I think for the new Iraqi government to begin to secure the loyalty of its own people, it has to be seen as standing on its own feet," he told CNN.
"These elections were great, but let's not fool ourselves: They were held under occupation. They were held thanks to the omnipresence of American forces."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that there was no timetable to pull the 150,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq. She said the question of how much longer U.S. troops will remain in Iraq depends on how long it takes to properly train and equip an Iraqi force. (Full story)
James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, warned that the election could end up worsening the country's existing sectarian and ethnic divisions.
"I think there are deep problems that remain," he said. "The divide with the Kurds is real. The divide between Sunni and Shia is real."
CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Jane Arraf, Nic Robertson, Auday Sadeq, Ingrid Formanek and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.
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contributed to this report.