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Iraqis head to polls amid violence

BAGHDAD - Throughout Iraq, fear gave way to defiance yesterday as voters, even in the most volatile areas, cast ballots in landmark parliamentary elections that militants tried their best to disrupt with dozens of explosions that shook Baghdad even before the polls opened.

By the end of the day, at least 38 people were dead and more than 80 were wounded throughout the country, Iraqi authorities said, including 25 casualties in a Baghdad apartment building that collapsed on sleeping families in an early-morning blast.

The despair at the scenes of violence stood in stark contrast to triumphant moments that unfolded elsewhere as Iraqis dipped their fingers in purple ink and cast ballots in elections that were billed as the first organized and secured by Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

"It's in the Iraqi nature to rise to a challenge, and we were challenged," said Younis Gomar, the head of a polling center in Baghdad.

"We mourn the tragic loss of life today, and honor the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy," President Barack Obama said in a statement of congratulations.

With election day out of the way, Iraqis now face what could be an even more gargantuan task.

None of the top vote-getters is expected to win an outright majority, ensuring weeks and probably months of horse-trading before a new government is formed.

Analysts and foreign diplomats agree the coalitions most likely to win are the self-proclaimed nationalist slate led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim; the secular, mixed-sect ticket of former premier Ayad Allawi; and an alliance of Iranian-backed Shia candidates and religious parties that was widely predicted to trail the first two in all but the most conservative Shia parts of the country.

Once again, however, Kurdish parties in semiautonomous northern Iraq are likely to hold the balance of power because Arab parties will need their support to assemble a majority in the 325-seat Iraqi parliament.

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