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Iraqi Voter Turnout Exceeds Expectations

Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in Iraq's first free election in a half-century Sunday. VOA's Jim Bertel reports that despite several attacks by insurgents, the turnout exceeded the expectations of election officials.

Some came in wheelchairs, others walked for miles, but across Iraq, millions turned out to vote Sunday, defying insurgents who threatened a bloodbath.

This voter says it was a day of victory.

Iraqi Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer voted early in the day. He described Sunday's election as the start of a new era for his country. "This will be our first step to joining the free world and being a democracy that Iraqis will be proud of," he said.

After the voting, U.S. President George W. Bush congratulated the Iraqi people calling the election a "resounding success. "Across Iraq today, men and women have taken rightful control of their country's destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace."

Iraqi election officials estimated the turnout at 72 percent, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned it would be "a while " before officials know exactly how many had voted. She said, "The Iraqi people have clearly turned out. And they've clearly done this because they recognize that the vote is an opportunity for a different kind of future."

Voter turnout was strongest in the mainly Kurdish north and Shi'ite south. Reports were mixed from Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, where some polling stations were largely deserted.

Despite the heavy presence of Iraqi and coalition forces, insurgents did their best to disrupt the voting. At least nine suicide bombings rocked Baghdad while across the country terrorist attacks claimed three-dozen lives. In an Internet message, the group headed by wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for some of the attacks.

Sunday's vote was the first step in a yearlong political process in Iraq. The 275-member transitional National Assembly chosen Sunday will draft a new Constitution and pick the country's next president.

Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says what matters most is not who wins but what steps the new leaders take next. "That's really the key question: Not who wins the election, but what comes out of the election and whether that process is going to lead to ongoing processes that begin to unify the country, unite the country, and lead it forward into a more stable future," he said.

Final results from Sunday's vote are expected in several days.