Mauritanians are voting heavily in post-coup legislative and municipal elections in the first step of the process to bring democracy to the sparsely populated desert state.

Turnout was reported high in the capital, Nouakchott, and in the interior.

Journalist Salem Bokari says many of the more than one million registered voters feel this is their first free and fair vote, after repeated coups and rigged elections since independence from France in 1960.

"It seems there will be transparency and regularity in these elections for the first time in the history of the country," said Bokari.

More than three-fourths of polling centers opened on time, and voting was slow and orderly.

The 2005 coup leader, Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, says the election would be like a glass castle.

He told the journalists after voting this morning that this is a historical day for all Mauritanians. "They have their freedom. They are free to vote for who they want," he said.

Election officials pointed out several irregularities, with reports of voters in remote areas showing up at polling stations with pre-marked ballots, or trying to vote with other people's identification.

The voting process will continue in December, with second-round legislative polls in jurisdictions where no candidate gets 50 percent in the first round. Next year, senate and presidential elections are scheduled to take place.

Members of the military junta, which replaced long-term leader Maaouya Old Taya, have said they will not run in any of the polls.

Competition is fierce, with several dozen parties competing, and at least five with important support, including Old Taya's former party.

But a Nouakchott resident says Islamists grouped in a coalition called the Centrist Reformists, and others running as independents, were very impressive at campaigning.

"They are really organized, and they were really disciplined. Everything is done in a perfect way," he said. "Their campaign was the best this year If people will vote for them or not, we cannot say anything about it. But, from what I see, they are really organized, more organized than the other parties."

Previously, Islamists were barred from taking part in elections. Freed slaves in Mauritania, which straddles black Africa and Arab north Africa, also had their own party.

Many women were also campaigning and will be assured a sizable number of seats due to a quota system on party lists.