Iraqis defied insurgent threats and calls for a boycott and went to the polls in large numbers Sunday --voting in the country's first free elections in nearly half a century.
Polls closed at 1400 UTC, and election workers are counting the ballots to determine the make-up of the transitional national assembly, 18 provincial councils, and a regional parliament in the Kurdish north. Turnout was strong, particularly in the north and mainly Shi'ite south. Reports were mixed from Sunni areas around Baghdad, where some polling stations were largely deserted. However, the top U.N. election official in Iraq (Carlos Valenzuela) said turnout exceeded expectations. Despite unprecedented security measures, Iraq's interior ministry said 30 civilians and six policemen were killed in election day attacks, most of them from suicide bombings. In an Internet message, the group headed by wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for some of the attacks. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said he hoped Iraq would build the first functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and he praised the country's military and security units for protecting voters. More than 5,000 polling stations were open across Iraq for the 14 million eligible voters. Preliminary election results could come as early as Sunday night, but final results are not expected for several days.