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Millions of Iraqis Vote in First Free Elections; 44 Die in Attacks

Insurgents, who had already launched scores of attacks against Iraqi poll workers and police, continued their violent campaign on Election Day, killing at least 44, nine suicide bombers among them, in attacks throughout the country.

But despite the threats of violence, election officials estimated at least eight million, or roughly 60 percent of the electorate, turned out Sunday to cast their vote. Election observers, who noted sporadic turnout in Sunni Muslim parts of the country, said low voter participation by the Sunnis could undercut the legitimacy of the national assembly.

While the central part of the country reported light voter participation, in the southern Shiite city of Basra, British Independent Television News reports indicated voter turnout as high as 90 percent.

In the United States, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted the vote was “not perfect,” but hailed it as a step forward.

“Every indication is that the election is going better than could have been expected,” Rice told ABC News. “What we’re seeing here is the emergence of an Iraqi voice for freedom.”

Reports from ballot locations portrayed a largely peaceful and often celebratory mood at polling stations.

“Am I scared? Of course I’m not scared. This is my country,” the Associated Press reported 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed as saying at one polling location in Baghdad.

Although violence appeared not to be as widespread or intense as feared, attacks did take their toll.

In one of the deadliest attacks, a bomber was able to board a bus carrying voters to polling stations in the town of Hilla south of Baghdad. A Polish military spokesman said the attacker then detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four others.

Also, insurgent efforts to intimidate polling workers appeared to gain some success. CNN reporter Jane Arraf reported in the war-torn northern city of Baquba that as many as one-third of polling locations were not able to operate Sunday because workers did not show up.

A Web site statement purportedly from Jordanian militant and al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for election-day attacks, although the claim could not be verified.

“Lions from the martyrs’ brigade of the Al Qaeda Organisation for Holy War in Iraq … killed policemen, National Guard, Americans and inflicted wounds on the enemy,” the statement read.

But despite the problems, international and Iraqi leaders hailed the vote as a success.

“This is a historic moment for Iraq, a day when Iraqis can hold their heads high because they are challenging the terrorists and starting to write their future with their own hands,” Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told reporters.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose chief envoy to the troubled nation helped organize Sunday’s ballot, praised Iraqi voters as “courageous.”

“They know they are voting for the future of their country, they are voting for the day when they will have their destiny in their own hands, so we must encourage them and support them,” Annan said in a statement.

The votes the Iraqis cast on Sunday were to elect 275 members of a national assembly. The assembly, which will replace the interim Iraqi government headed by Allawi, will select the country’s next president and will debate a new national constitution.

Also at stake in Sunday’s vote were 18 provincial assemblies and the autonomous Kurdish parliament in the north.

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