Despite mortar attacks and low expectations, Iraqis have today voted in large numbers in a national poll that is widely being seen as a defiant attempt to shake free from four years of political torpor and the remnants of the American occupation.
Up to 70% of registered voters in Baghdad were thought to have cast ballots for a new leader, despite the biggest surge in daily violence in more than two years, that killed at least 36 people and wounded dozens more.
Early figures released by the Independent High Election Commission showed turnout was also solid in other areas of the country, especially in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where more than 50% of voters turned up, reversing the mass boycott of the 2005 poll.
However, there was little in today's poll of the euphoria on show in December 2005, when voters waved purple ink-stained fingers almost in revolutionary zeal, only to see their country descend into sectarian chaos within months of a government being formed. This time Iraqis largely kept out of sight the fingers that indicated they had cast ballots, preferring instead to quietly debate the merits of their choices and claim that their country's second attempt at a general election would be more successful than the first.
"We have learned a lot," said Muhammad Ibrahim, 48, minutes after he cast his vote in the former battlefield Baghdad Sunni area of Adhimeya. "Saddam was a greedy man and we have studied the political process since him. [Nouri al-] Maliki [the incumbent prime minister] did not serve anyone and my vote went to Iyad Allawi," the head of the country's largest secular political list, who is expected to poll well.
Support for Allawi, who was prime minister for nine months until early 2005, was strong in Sunni parts of Baghdad and Sunni enclaves elsewhere, suggesting a swing away from the Shia Islamic conservative groupings of Maliki, and the young cleric Aamer Hakim.
Both Shia lists are expected to play prominent roles in helping to form a new government when post-election negotiations begin.
Preliminary results will be released once 30% of votes are counted, likely in around four days. A final count is expected within a week.
A strong performance by Allawi would be a boost to previously stagnant national reconciliation efforts, and to US president Barack Obama, whose post-election troop withdrawal plans were predicated on a transparent and fair ballot. Obama tonight praised the conduct of the election and the fact that large numbers of Iraqis turned up to vote under fire. "Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process," he said. "We mourn the tragic loss of life today, and honour the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy."
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, offered Britain's tribute, but said it was too early to declare that the ballot had been free of interference.
"Today's elections follow a vibrant election campaign and underscore the significant democratic progress across the country," said Miliband. "The Iraqi people, voting in their millions, have made clear they want an effective, accountable and inclusive government, and one which acts in truly national, not sectarian interests. The Iraqi people deserve our congratulations."
There were no reports of voter fraud by late tonight, although candidates and voters alike had widely predicted a lack of transparency in the sorting and counting process. The election followed a rollicking campaign rife with candidate giveaways and often huge cash payments to tribal groups. There are no rules governing political campaigning in Iraq and voters widely feel that the unchecked largesse will continue when a new government is formed.
"I don't trust any of them, not one," said Kowther Abdul Latif, 38, from a hospital bed in central Baghdad. She had woken up to prepare breakfast for her husband and five young children when a bomb destroyed their apartment building, breaking both her legs. "I didn't make it to the election centre. I was going to vote for Maliki, but that's because I don't know anyone. I was going to go with what I know.
"We had our breakfast inside the shop and, around 7am, the house crumbled around me. My legs are broken and I am eight months pregnant. Look at me."
Mortars rained unchecked across Baghdad from 6.30am. No US forces were seen on the city streets, although three US attack helicopters had taken to the skies by mid-morning. Mortar fire resumed
after nightfall. The barrages mostly targeted Sunni areas, where insurgent groups had warned residents not to vote. The Sunni insurgency had vowed to disrupt the poll, but a huge security dragnet
and a city-wide curfew kept away would-be suicide bombers and car bombs.