Iraqis vote by the millions

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BAGHDAD — Festive crowds mobbed polling stations yesterday for Iraq’s third election this year, the most ambitious attempt yet to shift a Shi’ite-Sunni struggle from the streets to parliament.

Unintimidated by a series of morning explosions that shook the capital and a smattering of attacks elsewhere, record numbers of voters walked in the warm sun to cast ballots at heavily protected polling places.

Official results will not be known for as long as two weeks, but fragmentary polling by Reuters news agency and a local television station showed substantial support for moderate Shi’ite leader Iyad Allawi from both Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Regardless of the outcome, voters in Baghdad were ready to celebrate the vote itself.

“Today is like a wedding day,” said Hussein Hussein, wearing a conservative brown suit as he watched voters at polling stations in Baghdad’s Harithiya district.

“The violence will be less because the Sunnis have come to vote, too. The people are much more united now. A lot of people came to vote today, even very old people came today,” Mr. Hussein said.

In Washington, President Bush and congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle hailed the vote as a milestone for Iraq’s fledgling democracy a little less than three years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

“There’s a lot of joy, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Bush said in the Oval Office while flanked by six smiling young Iraqis displaying purple-stained fingers.

In Baghdad, women with small children and men in their best suits lined up around the heavily guarded polling stations, expressing hope that the day would be a turning point.

“There will be a 100 percent change for the better, because Iraqis are united as one people,” said Labib, an elderly man in a gray suit. Like many Iraqis, he was unwilling to give a reporter more than his first name.

What began as a trickle of voters turned into a flood as the day progressed. Officials estimated that up to 11 million of the country’s 15 million registered voters had cast ballots by the time polls closed.

That would be significantly higher turnout than the Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution. Yesterday’s vote was to elect legislators to four-year terms in a new legislature that will choose a president, prime minister and Cabinet.

Voting was extended for an hour to accommodate long lines of voters in many places, and some polling stations ran out of ballots, forcing authorities to scramble for extra supplies or to turn away voters altogether.

Iraqi expatriates cast ballots in the United States and other nations this week.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News that the hard part for the Iraqis would come after the vote — forming a government and possibly amending the constitution.

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