Iraqis brave bombs to vote
Baghdad - Millions of Iraqis braved waves of deadly rocket, mortar and bomb attacks that killed 38 to vote on Sunday in a general election seen as a test of the war-shattered nation's young democracy.
"We don't care about the bombs. The people will vote," said Abbas Hussein, jangling a set of brown prayer beads with his index finger coated in purple ink, signalling he had voted in his Sunni district of Baghdad.
US President Barack Obama paid tribute to the "courage" of Iraqis who "defied threats to advance their democracy" by casting ballots.
"I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today," Obama said in his first reaction to the crucial vote.
His comments came after polls closed at the end of a warm spring day that saw long queues at polling stations in Baghdad, in Sunni towns that mostly boycotted the 2005 parliamentary vote, and elsewhere across the country.
Regional officials for the Independent High Electoral Commission said in initial forecasts that voter turnout was 50% or more in all but one of the 12 provinces it was able to provide figures for.
Full election results were not expected until March 18, and after that it will likely take months of horse trading before a new government is formed as no single political bloc is set to emerge dominant from the vote.
Baghdad bore the brunt of Sunday's violence, with around 70 mortars raining down on mostly Sunni areas as people voted in the second parliamentary ballot since US led forces ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The cities of Fallujah, Baquba, Samarra and several other areas were also hit by mortar rounds or bombs, many of them exploding near polling stations.
Twenty-five of the dead perished when a rocket flattened a residential building in the north of the capital, and all the other deaths were in or near the city.
A total of 110 people were injured in the attacks which came despite 200 000 police and soldiers deployed in Baghdad and hundreds of thousands more across the country.
An al-Qaeda group, which sees the election as validating the Shi'ite led government and the US occupation, warned on Friday that anyone voting ran the risk of being attacked, heightening an already tense security situation.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the attacks "are only noise to impress voters but Iraqis are a people who love challenges and you will see that this will not damage their morale".
Khaled Abdallah, 35, was one of the thousands who queued up in the Sunni bastion of Fallujah to cast his ballot.
"My vote today is a defiance of al-Qaeda," he told AFP.
Sunni Arabs boycotted nationwide polls in 2005 in protest at the rise to power of the nation's long-oppressed Shi'ite majority.
That boycott deepened the sectarian divide and heightened unrest which killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and which has only eased in the past two years.
The election will usher in a government tasked with tackling myriad problems, including still high levels of violence, an economy in tatters and a culture of endemic corruption.
Seven years after the invasion, much of Baghdad remains bomb-damaged, most homes receive only a few hours of mains electricity a day and lack clean drinking water, and a quarter of the Iraqi population is illiterate.
The United States hopes the election will bolster Iraq's democracy, making it a beacon in a region where free and fair elections are the exception, and pave the way to a smooth pullout of American troops.
Maliki, the Shi'ite head of the State of Law Alliance, is bidding to become the first Iraqi voted back into office at the will of the people who for decades had no choice but Saddam's Baath Party.
His rivals include Iyad Allawi, a Shi'ite former prime minister who heads the Iraqiya list, a rival secular coalition that has strong support in Sunni areas.
Also seeking the top job are Ahmed Chalabi, a former deputy premier once favoured but now loathed by Washington; Adel Abdel Mahdi, the country's Shi'ite vice president; and Baqer Jaber Solagh, the finance minister.
Chalabi, Mahdi and Solagh all represent the Iraq National Alliance, the main Shi'ite religious list.
Although violence is at a post-invasion low, attacks occur almost daily in Baghdad and other hotspots.