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Iraq Voting: Turnout Higher Than Expected

Vote-counting at polling stations across Iraq is beginning Thursday night, after Iraqis turned out in droves to elect their first full-term parliament since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Turnout was so heavy across the country that the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq gave provincial governments the discretion to keep polls open an hour past its 5 p.m. closing time. It was not clear where polling stations exercised this leeway.

Polling stations would close after the last person to arrive in line by 6 p.m. votes, IECI spokesman Farid Ayar said.

Also streaming to the polls were Sunni Arabs, who had stayed away from the polls in previous elections only to find they barely had a voice in government.

The high turnout was remarkable, considering curfews, bulked-up security, border closings, road closures and traffic bans across the country. In some cases, voters had to take long walks to get to polls. Many were seen happily thrusting their purple ink-stained fingers at photographers -- the colored fingers a symbol of Iraq's free elections.

Scattered violence was also reported.

Nonetheless, one volunteer poll worker in Baquba deemed it "a special day."

"It's the beginning of our new life," said Buthana Mehdi, a schoolteacher.

The White House, under pressure from critics at home for its Iraq strategy, said it was encouraged by the large turnout Thursday.

"The Iraqi people are showing the world that all people of all backgrounds want to be able to choose their own leaders and live in freedom," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

About two-thirds of the 15 million registered voters, or 10 million, were expected to vote. Final results from the 33,000 polling stations around the country probably won't be available for "two weeks or more," said Ayar, the election official.

Expected to fare well are the ruling coalitions during the transitional period -- the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish bloc.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are hopeful that greater Sunni participation in a post-Hussein government will quell the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that Sunni Arab participation appears better than during the January election and the constitutional referendum in October.

He pointed to Falluja, a hotbed of the insurgency in the Sunni Arab heartland of Anbar province as an example. As of early afternoon there, he said, "Over 120,000 people had voted. So indications are very good with regard to the Sunnis."

The Washington Post's Jonathan Finer corroborated a large turnout in Falluja, saying many of the polling places there ran out of ballots and ballot boxes, and election workers were trying to replenish supplies.

A strong turnout was also reported in the Sunni Arab-dominated Salaheddin province, where Hussein's hometown of Tikrit is located, CNN's Christiane Amanpour said.

She also reported a high Sunni turnout in southern Baghdad, with people saying they made a mistake by shunning the January election and want their voices to be heard.

In Ramadi, CNN's Nic Robertson reported that local clerics used mosque sound systems, usually reserved for calls to prayer, to urge people to vote.

Local Sunni militias were also providing security at the 23 area polling stations, because the police force remains inadequate.

A celebratory atmosphere took hold in some locations. In the eastern Ramadi neighborhood of Sufiya, candy was being handed out, as people came to vote.

Khalilzad said that people arrived to polls with families "almost like going to a wedding."

He noted that the success in integrating the Sunni Arab community into the political process was a factor that would contribute to the start of a pullout of U.S. forces after the elections.

Tight security, minor violence

The U.S. military said that voters faced a three-stage inspection system before entering polling sites. "No one with bags, cell phones or packages will be allowed to enter as citizens cast their historic vote," the U.S. military said.

The U.S. military said two 127 mm rockets were fired in central Baghdad Thursday morning, one of them landing behind a polling station. Three people were wounded.

At four different Sadr City polling stations, three armed terrorists were blamed for harassing voters, election officials said.

To the northeast, just south of Baquba, 12 roadside bombs were discovered, two of them detonating. One killed a civilian. North of the city, the controlled detonation of a roadside bomb wounded two civilians. The military reported that a Baquba polling station that was attacked overnight remained open.

A bomb killed a Marine in Ramadi on election eve, the Marines said. The Marine was assigned to the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). The death brings the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war to 2,152.

On the lookout

Ahead of the ballot, electoral officials said they were on the lookout for big and small election violations, such as illegal campaign practices, the distribution of fake ballots and voter intimidation.

Some political entities have violated campaign regulations, like campaigning after the Tuesday deadline and erecting posters too close to polling sites, said Abdul Hussein al-Hindawi of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

However, he expressed confidence that virtually all of the election workers will be fair. He said many election observers were on hand.

Safwat Rashid Sidai, a member of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said at a news conference he would investigate reports that a number of voting stations failed to open in Yusufiya, southwest of Baghdad.

'An historic day'

The parliament is called the Council of Representatives.

More than 19 political coalitions are running, along with 307 political entities -- either independent parties or individual candidates for the 275 seats.

On election eve Wednesday, Iraqi transitional President Jalal Talabani called on his nation to make election day "a national celebration and an historic day for national unity and a victory over terrorism."

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