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Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurds Overwhelmingly Attend Polls Despite Violence

Voting stations in Iraq have closed, but official results will not be known for more than a week. Iraqi electoral commission officials say voter turnout on Sunday has exceeded all expectations. Turnout was especially heavy in Shi'ite and Kurdish-dominated regions of the country.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Electoral Commission, Farid Ayar, says, based on preliminary surveys from polling centers, he believes about 60 percent of the 13 million registered voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new 275-member Iraqi assembly.

The assembly is to choose a new government and draft the country's constitution.

"We say about eight million will participate and this is not only guessing," said Mr. Ayar.

If true, Iraq's first democratic elections in half a century would be seen as an overwhelming success, defying insurgent vows to stop the polls.

For months, Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the core of the insurgency in Iraq, had threatened to kill anyone who dared to vote. They killed scores of candidates, election workers, police and others in a bloody campaign of intimidation leading up to the polls.

They made good on their threat to attack voters on Sunday, unleashing a wave of suicide and mortar attacks in the capital and other areas of the country throughout the day. But the violence, which killed more than three dozen people, was not enough to deter millions from voting.

Seventy-year-old Zahara Uboud Mansour appeared frail, leaning on her daughter's arm for support while she waited to vote at a polling site in Baghdad. The Shi'ite woman says she came because she loves her country.

Her voice shaking with emotion, Ms. Mansour says she is voting for freedom and democracy. But most of all, she says, she is voting as a final farewell gesture to the tyrant Saddam Hussein, the ousted dictator.

Polling centers in the Shi'ite-dominated areas of southern Iraq reported heavy voter turnout, as did polling centers in the Kurdish regions in the north of the country. Iraq's majority Shi'ites and Kurds, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein, have enthusiastically supported the U.S.-sponsored election process.

But few people ventured out to vote in Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland, where the violence has been fiercest. In insurgent strongholds, such as Ramadi and Beiji, polling centers remained deserted for most of the day.

The polls are opposed by Sunni Arabs, who have long dominated Iraqi politics, but now fear being marginalized by Shi'ites and Kurds. Analysts have warned that a low Sunni turnout could undermine the credibility of the elections, and prompt a greater Sunni rebellion in Iraq.

But the spokesman for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Thair Naqib, dismissed such worries. Instead, he congratulated the Iraqi people for taking what he called "the first step toward peace and stability." He also noted that, for the first time in decades, Iraqis had a choice of voting for someone other than Saddam Hussein.

"This is a great and a proud day for Iraqis, not such a great day for Saddam Hussein," said Mr. Naqib. "Two years ago, Iraqis had to choose Saddam or death. Today, they have more than 100 choices on their ballot papers. Today, is a true birth of democracy in our great country."

Election officials say they are pleased with the high turnout in Baghdad, which has a mix of religious and ethnic groups, and has been a center of insurgent violence since late 2003. Many polling centers reported long lines of voters, who did not complain about the extraordinary security measures, which made the physical act of voting a feat in itself.

A country-wide ban on car travel Sunday forced most people to walk to the centers. They walked gingerly through streets littered with barbed wire, and navigated around rows of concrete barriers. At polling sites, each person waited patiently in line to be searched multiple times before entering.

Election workers at polling centers have begun counting the ballots. But because the ballots will have to be recounted at the Iraqi electoral commission office in Baghdad, officials say they do not expect to have the final results for at least 10 days.