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Iraqis Take First Step Toward Democracy in Historic Vote

Iraqis have defied insurgent threats and calls for a boycott and gone to the polls in large numbers Sunday, voting in the country's first free elections in nearly 50 years.

Polls closed a few hours ago, and election workers have now begun counting the ballots that will determine the make-up of the transitional national assembly, 18 provincial councils, and a regional parliament in the Kurdish north.

Turnout was strong, particularly in the north and mainly Shi'ite south. Reports were mixed from Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, where some polling stations were largely deserted. However, the top U.N. election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, said turnout exceeded expectations.

Despite unprecedented security measures, Iraq's interior ministry said 30 civilians and six police were killed in election day attacks, most of them from suicide bombings. In an Internet message, the group headed by wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for some of the attacks.

More than 5,000 polling stations were open across Iraq for the 14 million eligible voters. Preliminary election results could come as early as Sunday night, but final results are not expected for several days.

Some information for this report provided by AFP, Reuters, and AP.