(AP) — Insurgents bombed a polling station and lobbed grenades at voters Sunday, killing 36 people in attacks aimed at intimidating those taking part in an election that will determine whether the country can overcome the sectarian divisions that have plagued it since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Many Iraqis hope the election will put them on a path toward national reconciliation as the U.S. prepares to withdraw combat forces by late summer and all troops by the end of next year. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political future with challenges from a coalition of mainly Shiite religious groups on one side and a secular alliance combining Shiites and Sunnis on the other.
Despite mortars raining down nearby, voters in the capital still came to the polls. In the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad, Walid Abid, a 40-year-old father of two, was speaking as mortars boomed several hundreds yards (meters) away. Police reported at least 20 mortar attacks in the neighborhood shortly after daybreak. Mortars also fell in the Green Zone — home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister's office.
"I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home," said Abid, who owns a cafe. "Until when? We need to change things. If I stay home and not come to vote, Azamiyah will get worse."
Polls closed at 5 p.m. as scheduled and election officials said it could be days before preliminary results are released.
Observers warn the election is only a first step in the political process. With the fractured nature of Iraqi politics, it could take months of negotiations after results are released in the coming days for a government to be formed.
"This day has been a triumph of reason over confrontation and violence," he said. "Iraqis are making history. This day is an important step on the road to national reconciliation."
Melkert also said the release of official results would take time and urged Iraqis not to engage in premature speculation about the outcome.
Many view the election as a crossroads where Iraq will decide whether to adhere to politics along the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines or move away from the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted, Sunni-minority rule.
Al-Maliki, who has built his reputation as the man who restored order to the country, is facing a tough battle from his former Shiite allies, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"Al-Maliki gave us security despite all the terror. What more can he do?" said Mariam Omran, a 55-year-old bespectacled mother of four clad in a black chador. "All I want is peace for my country," she said after voting in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah in northern Baghdad.
President Barack Obama praised Iraqis who took part in the historic vote.
"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," he said in a statement.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said early reports indicate turnout was at or above expectations and security solid.
"All in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us," Gates said.
Al-Maliki faces a challenge from a secular alliance led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.
"These acts will not undermine the will of the Iraqi people," al-Maliki said Sunday morning, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot.
Exiting the polls, Iraqis waved purple-inked fingers — the now-iconic image of voting in this oil-rich country of roughly 28 million people.
Extraordinary security measures did not foil Sunni insurgents who vowed to disrupt the elections — which they see as validating the Shiite-led government and the U.S. occupation. They launched a spate of mortar, grenade and bomb attacks throughout the morning that, beside Baghdad, targeted the northern city of Mosul, Fallujah, a former bastion of the insurgency west of Baghdad, and small towns just to the south of the capital.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but U.S. and Iraqi officials described the violence as the work of insurgents trying to undermine voting.
In a posting early Sunday on an Islamic Web site, the al-Qaida front group Islamic State in Iraq warned that anyone taking part in the voting would risk "God's wrath and to the mujahideen's weapons," saying the process bolsters Iraq's Shiite majority.
An Interior Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said 35 people had died in Baghdad alone but did not have a breakdown of where the deaths occurred. One other death was reported in the city of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad. A bomb inside a polling center killed a policeman, said Iraqi Army Col. Abdul Hussein.
In Baghdad's northeast Hurriyah neighborhood, where mosque loudspeakers exhorted people to vote as "arrows to the enemies' chest," three people were killed when someone threw a hand grenade at a crowd heading to the polls, according to police and hospital officials.
At least 19 people died in northeastern Baghdad after explosions leveled two buildings about a mile apart, and mortar attacks in western Baghdad killed seven people in two different neighborhoods, police and hospital officials said. In Mosul, police said unidentified gunmen threw a grenade on a polling center, wounding six voters. In Fallujah, six mortar rounds were fired around the city but caused no casualties, police said.
At the scene of one of the Baghdad blasts, near the Sadr City slum, rescue workers said they could hear women and children caught alive under the debris screaming for help. The blast left a mound of rubble, scattered with blankets, pillows and torn bits of clothing. Rescue workers used cranes and tractors to lift debris. Bodies were being recovered several hours after the explosion.
An explosion in the mixed neighborhood of Kirayaat, in northern Baghdad, killed one person, said police and hospital officials. There were a number of other explosions elsewhere in the country, but no other reports of fatalities.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza said Sunday's attacks sought to intimidate voters.
"But what we've seen is that this psychological effect was not achieved," he said.
About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 seats in the new parliament, Iraq's second, full-term legislature since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion seven years ago this month.
To try to secure the elections, Iraq sealed its borders, closed the airport and deployed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military and police in the streets. Extra checkpoints were set up, and in some parts of central Baghdad, people could not go 50 yards (meters) without being stopped for search. Some voters reported strict searches in which they could not bring even pens or packs of cigarettes through the checkpoints ringing the voting centers.
Iraqi officials lifted a vehicle ban in the capital during the day to allow people to vote, but later reintroduced it to thwart attacks on ballots being driven to the capital.
In keeping with the U.S. military's assertion that Iraqis are running the elections, the only visible American military presence was in the air or escorting election observers to the polls; four U.S. helicopter gunships could be seen at one point this afternoon in the sky over northern Baghdad.
Associated Press writers Katarina Kratovac, Hamid Ahmed, Saad Abdul-Kadir, Bushra Juhi, Ben Hubbard and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Matt Ford in Nasiriyah, and Lara Jakes in Qahtaniya contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS rank of U.S. Army spokesman.).)