BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqis voted today in their country's first free election in a half-century, defying threats of violence from insurgents determined to sabotage the balloting. As he cast his vote, President Ghazi al-Yawer called it Iraq's first step "toward joining the free world."
Before voting began, mortar fire boomed across Baghdad and the world awaited the results of an event that will echo from militant Islamic Web sites in the Mideast to the halls of the White House. Insurgents rocketed the U.S. Embassy in downtown Baghdad late Saturday, killing two Americans.
Al-Yawer was among the first to cast his ballot, voting alongside his wife at election headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad. As poll workers watched, he marked two ballots and dropped them into boxes, and then walked away with an Iraqi flag given to him by a poll worker.
"I'm very proud and happy this morning," al-Yawer told reporters. "I congratulate all the Iraqi people and call them to vote for Iraq."
The election is a major test of President Bush's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 soldiers.
Voters nationwide began trickling past police guards and heavy security fortifications into schools and other buildings converted into polling centers. A spokesman for Iraq's elections commission said all the nearly 5,200 polling stations nationwide were opening on schedule.
Turnout was expected to be low in the early hours. Most attacks occur in the morning, and many Iraqis were likely to wait to see whether rebels carry through with threats of violence.
Final results will not be known for seven to 10 days but a preliminary tally is expected late today.
Baghdad's streets were deserted at dawn. The only activity in one area was an American Humvee racing down an empty road in response to a burst of gunfire.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, buses hired by city officials picked up people walking toward voting centers to get them there more quickly.
Like al-Yawer, Iraqis will mark two ballots: one to elect the National Assembly, the other for a provincial legislature.
There were no immediate reports of violence at the polls, but an explosion was heard at the U.S. military base in Kirkuk in the north. Scattered small arms fire was heard near another U.S. base near Baghdad's airport.
"So far the situation is excellent in all areas," said the chairman of Iraq's electoral commission, Abdul-Hussein Hendawi. "All the polling centers, their doors are open. So far we haven't heard about any problems."
Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the vote, and threatened death to any Iraqis who show up. The country was under almost complete lockdown -- across Iraq, U.S. tanks and armored vehicles blocked roads and bridges to prevent insurgent movement and the airport was closed.
Iraqi officials have predicted that up to eight million of 14 million voters -- just over 57 percent -- will turn out for today's election. Voters in the Kurdish-run north also will select a regional parliament.
But turnout is uncertain, especially in the Sunni Arab areas of central, northern and western Iraq where the insurgency is most deadly. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops are on the streets and on standby to protect voters.
Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries cast absentee ballots on the second of three days of voting abroad, and officials said that by late Saturday, about two-thirds of those registered had voted so far. Iraqi leaders had been disappointed that less than a quarter of the estimated 1.2 million expatriate Iraqis eligible to vote worldwide registered to do so.
Government spokesman Thaer al-Naqeeb warned Iraqis to expect "sabotage operations" carried out by "the enemies of Iraq."
But he encouraged Iraqis to vote nonetheless. "It is important. It will preserve the integrity of Iraq," he said. "If you vote ... the terrorists will be defeated."
Despite the strict security and a nighttime curfew, guerrillas hit the U.S. Embassy compound in the Green Zone with a rocket Saturday evening, killing a Defense Department civilian and a Navy sailor and wounding four other Americans, according to State Department spokesman Noel Clay in Washington.
The Defense Department released grainy footage shot from an unmanned spy drone of what it said showed figures shooting a rocket and running away. It then showed U.S. soldiers entering a house where the suspected militants sought refuge, and said seven people were arrested.
Another American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. More than 40 American troops have been killed in the past three days.
Bush said in his weekly radio address from the White House that the election "will add to the momentum of democracy."
"The terrorists and those who benefited from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein know that free elections will expose the emptiness of their vision," he said.
But a low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen the tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are expected to turn out in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.
A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.
Sunni extremists, fearing victory by the Shiites, have called for a boycott, claiming no vote held under U.S. military occupation is legitimate. A Western election adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated Sunni turnout could run anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent.
Throughout the Sunni heartland, there was little enthusiasm for the election.
"We will not vote because our houses have been destroyed," said Alaa Hussein of the Sunni city of Fallujah, which fell to a U.S. assault against insurgents in November. "We don't have electricity or water. The Iraqi National Guard fire at us 24 hours a day. So who will we vote for?"
By contrast, enthusiasm among Shiites was high.
"There's joy everywhere," said Mohammed Hussein, who lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Iraqis who took part in the overseas voting were also excited. A line outside a Denmark polling station snaked for 700 yards despite freezing temperatures, and people danced for joy in Nashville, Tenn.
"I learned from my parents about past bitter days in my homeland and I voted in the hope of replacing that with a brighter future," said Ahmad Abai, 21, casting his ballot in the Iranian capital, Tehran, where he was born to Iraqi parents.
Fighting raged Saturday night in the ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk between police and insurgents. The clashes occurred in a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood and lasted for about an hour, according to police Brig. Gen. Torhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef.
"We have one life and one God," said Mohammed Omar, 35, repeating an Arabic expression underlining the futility of trying to cheat death. "Our hearts have died. We no longer fear anything. If death is written, then there's nothing that we can do."
Amar Samir, a Christian resident of Baghdad, said it was impossible to believe that things could get worse.
"We get electricity for half an hour and then it disappears for six or longer," Samir said. "These are very strange elections. They will not change a thing.
"Or maybe they will," he added. "But not right away."