BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Some came on crutches, others walked for miles then struggled to read the ballot, but across Iraq, millions turned out to vote Sunday, defying insurgents who threatened a bloodbath.
Suicide bombs and mortars killed at least 27 people, but voters still came out in force for the first multi-party poll in 50 years. In some places they cheered with joy at their first chance to cast a free vote, in others they shared chocolates.
Even in Falluja, the Sunni city west of Baghdad that was a militant stronghold until a U.S. assault in November, a steady stream of people turned out, confounding expectations. Lines of veiled women clutching their papers waited to vote.
"We want to be like other Iraqis, we don't want to always be in opposition," said Ahmed Jassim, smiling after he voted.
In Baquba, a rebellious city northeast of Baghdad, spirited crowds clapped and cheered at one voting station. In Mosul, scene of some of the worst insurgent attacks in recent months, U.S. and local officials said turnout was surprisingly high.
One of the first to vote was President Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni Muslim Arab with a large tribal following, who cast his ballot inside Baghdad's fortress-like Green Zone.
"Thanks be to God," he told reporters, emerging from the booth with his right index finger stained with bright blue ink to show he had voted. "I hope everyone will go out and vote."
In the relatively secure Kurdish north, people flowed steadily to the polls. One illiterate man in Arbil, 76-year-old Said Rasool, came alone and was turned away, unable to read the ballot paper. He said he would return with someone to help.
Even in the so-called "triangle of death," a hotbed of Sunni insurgency south of Baghdad, turnout was solid, officials said.
In mainly Shi'ite Basra, Iraq's second biggest city, hundreds of voters queued patiently at polling centers. "I am not afraid," said Samir Khalil Ibrahim. "This is like a festival for all Iraqis."
A small group cheered in Baghdad as Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a descendant of Iraq's last king, went to the polls. Ali leads a constitutional monarchy slate in the election.
Western Baghdad polling stations were busy, with long queues of voters. Most went about the process routinely, filling in their ballots and leaving quickly without much emotion.
Others brought chocolates for those waiting in line, and shared festive juice drinks inside the voting station.
Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast in October, was determined to vote. "I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me. Today I am voting for peace," he said, leaning on his metal crutches, determination in his reddened eyes.
In Sadr City, a poor Shi'ite neighborhood of northeast Baghdad, thick lines of voters turned out, women in black abaya robes in one line, men in another.
Some of the first to vote countrywide were policemen, out in force to protect polling centers from attack, part of draconian security measures put in place by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
In Samarra, a restive Sunni-Shi'ite city north of Baghdad, the crackle of gunfire was heard minutes after polls opened.
After a few hours, only about 100 people had voted at one of two polling sites. One woman, covered head-to-toe in black robes, kept her face concealed, but said she voted with pride.
In nearby Baiji, some people were unable to vote because electoral officials failed to turn up. "We are waiting for the manager with the key," said an election worker, apologizing.
"VOTE FOR HUMANITY"
In the shrine city of Najaf in the Shi'ite heartland, hundreds of people walked calmly to polling stations. Security around Najaf, attacked before, was some of the tightest.
"This is a wedding for all Iraqis. I congratulate all Iraqis on their newfound freedom and democracy," said Jaida Hamza, dressed in a black Islamic veil that also hid her face.
Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's people, are expected to win the vote, overturning years of oppression.
In Kirkuk, a city divided between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, Kurds turned out in force, as expected, but there were signs Arabs and Turkmen were boycotting, angered by what they see as voting rules that favor Kurds.
One of the biggest surprises was Mosul, a mixed Sunni Arab and Kurd city in the far north. "So far it's gone very well, much better than expected," said a U.S. army officer.
Baghdad's mayor was overcome with emotion by the turnout of voters at City Hall, where he said thousands were celebrating.
"I cannot describe what I am seeing. It is incredible. This is a vote for the future, for the children, for the rule of law, for humanity, for love," Alaa al-Tamimi told Reuters.
That's a pretty awesome read. I haven't been a big fan of this war and have really questioned it all but seeing something like this makes me feel better about it. My cousin was just shipped over there last week and is currently in Kuwait training I would assume.
I think that even though I dont support the reasons for going to war in the first place, I think everyone should be together on the idea that we cant leave right now. I also think that this is not total propaganda coming from the Big Men on campus. These people do want freedom. They want democracy. THey are not all radical morons blowiung soldiers up. That is the same problem people have with Palestinians. People feel that they are all radical terrorists when there actually are peaceful ones just trying to survive through the middle east mess