Millions of voters have cast their ballots in Iraq's landmark election. For the first time in 50 years, votes are being counted in what looks to be a free and open poll. The turnout around the country was higher than organizers had dared to hope. In southern Iraq, the largely Shiite Muslim residents flocked to the polls joyfully and peacefully.
It was an amazing sight on a bitterly cold morning. There were no cars on the roads, but instead hundreds of people, walking steadily toward the schoolhouses that were doubling as polling stations in Basra's eastern suburbs.
Whole families went to cast their votes together. Groups of women clad in flowing black abayas smiled and waved as they passed on their way to the voting centers. Elderly people were pushed toward the polls in wheelchairs, or moved slowly there under their own power, step by step, leaning on canes and walkers.
Everyone seemed excited and happy, even festive. British soldiers stationed in the area and foreign journalists who have spent months covering Iraq agreed that the mood was decidedly more positive they had ever encountered in the country.
The goodwill persisted despite long lines outside some polling stations in the morning. At one schoolhouse, at least 300 people were waiting to be searched and scanned so they could enter and vote. At another, people started lining up two hours before the polls even opened, rubbing their hands together to keep warm.
Voters waited patiently in areas roped off by brightly colored plastic tape, behind barricades made from classroom desks. By afternoon, the lines had largely disappeared, but a steady stream of voters kept heading to the polling stations right up until they closed at 5 PM.
Inside a polling station, election workers were trying hard to keep order and make sure things were done properly. But for most Iraqis, this was the first time they had ever voted in a free election, and the ballot paper itself would have confused even the most experienced voters.
The national ballot was the size of a broadsheet newspaper, with two columns of so-called political entities to choose from. Voters sometimes crowded two or three to a cardboard polling booth, talking animatedly about which party was which, and where to make their marks. At times they looked more like a voting committee than a set of individual voters.
Over and over, election workers explained to voters how to fold their ballots just right, and which ballot to drop into which box.
A woman covered head to toe in flowing black robes, except for tiny slits in her veil for her eyes, removes one black glove to reveal a small hand with close-cropped fingernails a bit of pink nail polish on the thumb. She dips her right index finger in a jar of purple ink, and then places her ballots one by one in the proper plastic ballot boxes - one for the national election, the other for the provincial one.
Voter turnout was expected to be higher in southern Iraq than in the country's more troubled central regions. This area is heavily dominated by Shiite Muslims, who view the election as a chance to regain control of the country after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared voting to be a religious duty for his followers. But their jovial demeanor made it clear that they took great pleasure in doing that duty.
There had been fears that the Shiite areas would be targeted for attacks by the Sunni-led insurgency, but those fears turned out to be largely unfounded. The region suffered none of the deadly suicide attacks that plagued Baghdad and other cities. But Iraqi and international troops were taking no chances as darkness fell and the ballot boxes were being transported to the airport so the votes could be tallied. They remained on full alert.
Preliminary results are expected sometime in the next few days, but final official results will probably not be in for over a week.