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Afghans Head to the Polls in Landmark Parliamentary Elections

Millions of people across Afghanistan are heading to the polls Sunday to choose representatives for a new national assembly and provincial councils. More than 12-million people are registered.

Polls opened at six a.m. Sunday morning for Afghanistan's second democratic election in less than a year.

Voters are choosing 249 legislators and delegates to 34 provincial councils including, for the first time ever in Afghanistan, women. Nearly 600 women are among the six thousand candidates.

Insurgents from the former Taleban regime have vowed to disrupt the elections, and rebel attacks have taken place right up to election day. U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neuman indicates no one will be surprised to see more attacks while the voting is taking place. "On any given day there are massive numbers of intelligence reports. Something could happen, but I'd say you worry as much about what you don't know as what you get a report on," he said.

However, election organizers insist rebel threats will not be allowed to disrupt the historic vote. The polls close Sunday evening, but officials say it will be weeks before official results are announced.

The election is considered a key test of Afghanistan's ability to establish a functioning democracy. After decades of war and authoritarian rule, people here say they welcome the second stage in their move towards truly representative government. Last year, a president was elected with only minimal disruption.

But questions remain regarding how rapidly the country will be able to evolve into a modern democracy.

More than half the population is illiterate, and many parts of the country remain divided along ethnic and tribal lines.

Another potential problem is that candidates for parliament include local warlords and alleged surrogates for Afghanistan's powerful drug cartels.

But election organizers say they remain confident the country is ready for the challenges of self-government.

Bismillah Bissmil heads the joint United Nations-Afghan election body. He says Sunday's vote heralds a new era. He says this is the day for Afghans to embrace freedom of choice. After years of oppression, he says, Afghans can finally express their own opinions, and have their own government.