Voting began in Iraq several hours ago and Iraqis in many parts of the country are braving insurgent violence to vote in their first multi-party elections in 50 years.  Thousands are heading to the polls, expressing hope that elections will bring freedom and the stability they have long waited for.

As American attack helicopters circled overhead in the Karrada district of Baghdad early Sunday morning, hundreds of people - young and old, mothers, fathers and children - walked nervously down heavily guarded streets.  Many of the streets were blocked off from main roads by concrete barriers and barbed wires.

Several loud explosions echoed across the city as 26-year-old Lamia Allawi prepared to enter a primary school turned into a polling center.  But Ms. Allawi remained undeterred from voting.

Ms. Allawi says it is the on-going insecurity and violence that have convinced her to vote.  She adds that helping to bring freedom and security to Iraq is a cause worth dying for.

Forty-five year-old businessman Hekmat al-Rubaie agrees.  He says he and his wife never considered staying home on election day.

"Some of the people are frightened because the terrorists may attack the election places, but I feel very happy because this is the first time for us to elect a government, which we like," Mr. al-Rubaie says.

As people lined up to enter, others emerged from the polling station, smiling and showing their ink-stained index finger, which proved that they had voted.

Just then, a mortar landed nearby, reminding everyone here that across Iraq, militants were making good on their threat to attack voters at polling places.

Suicide bombers struck at least seven voting centers within the first six hours of the polls opening.  Insurgents lobbed mortars and fought gun battles with Iraqi forces, which are providing the bulk of the security at polling sites.

The core of the insurgency is made up of Sunni Muslim militants who oppose the polls.  They fear that Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq but have long-dominated Iraqi politics, will be marginalized by the country's majority Shi'ite Muslims.

Some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the elections, arguing that insecurity would prevent too many Sunnis from going to polls and would skew the voting results.

An official for the Iraqi Electoral Commission says polling centers in several towns in the Sunni-dominated area south of Baghdad did not open on Sunday because of threats.

Early voter turnout on Sunday indicated that an overwhelming number of voters are Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and have enthusiastically supported the election process.