Iraqis voted in an election testing the mettle of the country's still-fragile democracy as insurgents killed 19 people in the capital and sent down a barrage of mortars intent on disrupting the day.
Insurgents who vowed to disrupt the elections — which they see as validating the Shiite-led government and the U.S. occupation — launched a volley of mortar attacks just as polls opened across the city and country.
At least 12 people died in northeastern Baghdad after an explosion leveled a building, and mortar attacks in western Baghdad killed seven people in two different neighborhoods, police and hospital officials said. There were also explosions elsewhere in the country, but no further reports of fatalities.
About 19 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in the election which will determine who will lead the country as U.S. forces go home and whether the country will be able to overcome the jagged sectarian divisions that have defined Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Insurgents also launched mortars toward the Green Zone — home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister's office — and in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah police reported at least 20 mortar attacks in the neighborhood since day break.
Voters still came
Yet voters still came. In Hurriyah, a Shiite neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad, loudspeakers in mosques exhorted people to turn out to vote — like "arrows to the enemy's chest."
About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 seats in the new parliament, Iraq's second for a full term of parliament since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion seven years ago this month.
Many view the election as a crossroads at which Iraq will decide whether to adhere to politics along the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines or move away from the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted, Sunni minority rule.
Iraqis hope it will help them achieve national reconciliation at a time when the United States has vowed to stick to President Barack Obama's timetable for the withdrawal of combat forces by late summer and all American troops by the end of next year.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political future against a coalition led by mainly Shiite religious groups — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also faces a challenge from secular alliance led by former a secular Shiite, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.
"These acts will not undermine the will of the Iraqi people," al-Maliki said Sunday morning, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot.
Security was tight across the capital where only authorized vehicles were allowed on the streets and voters headed to the ballot box on foot. The borders have been sealed, the airport closed and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military and police have flooded the streets.
Extra checkpoints were set up across the city, and in some parts of central Baghdad, people could not go 50 yards without hitting another checkpoint.
In keeping with the U.S. military's assertion that Iraqis will run these elections, the only visible American military presence was a lone helicopter hovering over central Baghdad.
The U.S., which has lost more than 4,300 troops in the nearly seven-year conflict, has fewer than 100,000 troops in the country — a number that is expected to drop to about 50,000 troops by the end of the summer.
Exiting the polls, Iraqis waved purple-inked fingers — the now-iconic image synonymous with voting in this oil-rich country home to roughly 28 million people.
At one polling place in Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood, barbed wire ringed a school, armed guards stood around the perimeter, and police scanned voters with metal detectors.
Excited to vote
Despite the violence and frustration that has set in after years of fighting and faulty government services, many Iraqis were still excited to vote.
In a mostly-Sunni enclave called Zubair, near the southern port city of Basra, Jaman Khalf lined up with his family at the polling center starting at 6:30 a.m. He was the first person there to cast his ballot.
"We have come here looking for change. We hope that Iraqis will elect qualified people who will save us from the miserable situation we are living in," he said.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, dozens of voters also lined up to cast their ballot.
"We came to participate in this national day, and we don't care about the explosions," said Sahib Jabr, a 34-year-old old taxi driver.
President Jalal Talabani was among the first to vote Sunday morning in the Kurdish city of Sulamaniyah. Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is enmeshed in a tight race with an upstart political party called Change which is challenging the two Kurdish parties that have dominated Iraqi politics for years.
"I call on the Kurds and on all Iraqi people to turn out because it is a decisive election," Talabani said, speaking after casting his ballot.