BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis voted in a historic parliamentary election Thursday, with strong turnout reported in Sunni Arab areas and even a shortage of ballots in some precincts.
Several explosions rocked Baghdad throughout the day, but the level of violence was low.
The heavy participation by the Sunnis, who had shunned balloting last January, bolstered U.S. hopes of calming the insurgency enough to begin withdrawing its troops next year.
Because of the large turnout, the Iraqi election commission extended voting for one hour, until 6 p.m. (10 a.m. EST) as long lines were reported in some precincts, said commission official Munthur Abdelamir. The commission said results will be announced within two weeks.
Policemen guarding a polling place in eastern Baghdad's Zayouna neighborhood fired shots in the air to celebrate the end of voting there.
When the polls opened, a mortar shell exploded near the heavily fortified Green Zone, slightly injured two civilians and a U.S. Marine, the U.S. military said. A civilian was killed when a mortar shell hit near a polling station in the northern city of Tal Afar, and a grenade killed a school guard near a voting site in Mosul.
A bomb also exploded in Ramadi, a mortar round struck about 200 yards from a polling place in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and a bomb was defused at a voting site in Fallujah, despite promises by major insurgent groups not to attack such places.
But violence was light overall and did not appear to discourage Iraqis, some of whom turned out wrapped in their country's flag on a bright, sunny day, and afterward displayed a purple ink-stained index finger - a mark to guard against multiple voting. One jubilant Shiite voter in Baghdad proudly displayed all 10 of his fingers with the purple ink.
"The number of people participating is very, very high and we have had very few irregularities," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press. "It is a good day so far, good for us, good for Iraq."
The Bush administration hopes the new parliament will include more Sunnis to help establish a government that can lure other Sunnis away from the insurgency. Such a development might make it possible for the United States and its partners to start to draw down their troops in 2006.
"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," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
With a nationwide vehicle ban in effect, most Iraqis walked to the polls. Streets were generally empty of cars, except for police, ambulances and a few others with special permits.
An alliance of Shiite religious parties, which dominate the government, was expected to win the most seats, but not enough to form a new administration without a coalition with rival groups. That could set the stage for long and possibly bitter negotiations - something the U.S. wants to avoid.
The mood among voters varied with the community. Sunnis, both in Baghdad and in provincial towns, were defiant, as if to assert their rights against the Shiites and the Americans. Shiites and Kurds seemed more hopeful that the new government would be more successful than the outgoing one in restoring security and providing basic services. Shiites also appeared confident of retaining their leadership role.
Up to 15 million Iraqis were electing 275 members of the first full-term parliament from among 7,655 candidates running on 996 tickets, representing Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, Turkomen and sectarian interests across a wide political spectrum. Iraqis do not vote for individual candidates, but instead for lists - or tickets - that compete for the seats in each of the 18 provinces.
Sunnis appeared to have turned out in large numbers - even in insurgent bastions like Ramadi and Haqlaniyah - to try to curb the power of Shiite clerical parties now in control.
"I came here and voted in order to prove that Sunnis are not a minority in this country," said lawyer Yahya Abdul-Jalil in Ramadi. "We lost a lot during the last elections, but this time we will take our normal and key role in leading this country."
Fallujah teacher Khalid Fawaz said he also took part "so that the Sunnis are no longer marginalized."
Many others who turned out in Fallujah, which was overrun by U.S. forces in November 2004, saw the election as a way to get rid of the Americans and the Shiite-dominated government.
"It's an extremist government. We would like an end to the occupation," said Ahmed Majid, 31. "Really the only true solution is through politics. But there is the occupation and the only way that will end is with weapons."
The big turnout in Fallujah also caused problems, with voters, election officials and the mayor complaining of a shortage of ballot boxes and ballots.
Mayor Dhari Youssef al-Arsan, who put turnout at about 45 percent, said 11 out of 35 polling stations did not get ballot boxes and some ran out of ballots early.
"Three sites stopped because they ran out of ballots," he said. "We had an administrative problem opening polling sites in some of the centers."
He said some of the voters told him that "they thought it was done purposely."
Shiite parties had urged a large turnout, too. Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told Shiites to support candidates who defend their principles - a veiled warning against turning toward secular political movements.
"They are clerics, and clerics do not steal our money," said Abbasiya Ahmad, 80, of Baghdad, as she voted for the Shiite religious bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance. "We want people who protect our money."
In January, insurgent threats and boycott calls kept many Sunnis at home despite a national turnout of nearly 60 percent. That enabled Shiites and Kurds to dominate the legislature, sharpening communal tensions and fueling the insurgency. This time, more Sunnis Arabs were in the race, and changes in the election law all but guaranteed strong Sunni representation.
Security was tight. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police guarded polling stations, with U.S. and other coalition forces standing by. U.S. troops and bomb-detecting dogs checked thousands of polling stations before handing over control to Iraqi police.
"Sometimes it feels like we're beating a dead horse, but maybe this here today will be the culmination of it all," said Staff Sgt. Jason Scapanski, 33, of St. Cloud, Minn., assigned to the 101st Airborne in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.
In the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, turnout also was brisk, especially in Kurdish districts.
"This is the day to get our revenge from Saddam," said Kurdish voter Chiman Saleh, a Kirkuk housewife who said two of her brothers were killed by the ousted regime.
Ethnic tensions in Kirkuk, claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, could be seen. Norjan Adel, a poll watcher for the Turokman Front, complained of irregularities by the Kurds, including multiple voting.
The mood was lighter in Mosul, where streets were like a giant playground, with thousands of children playing games and turning major roads into soccer fields. Families strolled together after voting, enjoying the day off.
In Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Arab Azamiyah district, the head of one polling station said that by midday, about a third of the 3,500 registered voters had turned out. In January, many polling stations in Azamiyah didn't even open.
At Azamiyah's al-Nuaman school, voters had little enthusiasm for the Shiite coalition that has governed since April 28.
"We want to choose Sunni candidates. We want them to be in power because they are capable of providing security and they do not kill or beat us," said Khali Ibrahim, 70, as he hobbled up the stairs leaning on a cane.
Such comments reflect the sectarian tensions that threaten Iraq's future and the Bush administration strategy. Sunnis have repeatedly complained of abuse at the hands of Shiite-dominated security forces.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, highlighted a key looming fight - possible amendments to the constitution - as he voted in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah.
"I hope that the Iraqi people will stay united. We hope that the people will vote to keep the constitution that was approved by the Iraqi people," he said.
Election of the new parliament, which will serve a four-year term, marks the final step in the U.S. blueprint for democracy. That included the transfer of sovereignty last year, selection of an interim parliament Jan. 30, and ratification of the constitution in October. The new parliament will name a government, including a new prime minister.
For the Bush administration, the stakes are nearly as high as for the Iraqis. A successful election would represent a much-needed political victory amid growing doubts about the war among the American public.
U.S. officials said a successful election alone will not end the insurgency. Also needed is a government capable of reconciling Iraq's disparate groups.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a U.S. Marine was killed Wednesday by a roadside bomb near Ramadi, raising to 2,151 the number of members of the military who have died since the beginning of the war in 2003, according to an AP count.