BAGHDAD — Iraqis walked through mostly silent streets this morning to begin voting in their country's most competitive election in decades, a U.S.-backed exercise that will produce the first full-term government here since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The mood was tense and solemn as voters braved scattered insurgent attacks to venture on foot to polling centers -- some alone, some with their families. Turnout across the country was brisk at midmorning after a slow start.
Iraqi soldiers and special police commandos guarded the centers, mostly schools, and frisked everyone entering. U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the roads. Virtually all civilian cars had been banned from the streets under strict security rules.
A bomb exploded outside a school in Mosul during early voting there, killing a guard, hospital officials said. Explosions were also heard in Baghdad, Tikrit and Ramadi during the morning. Police said one blast apparently was caused by a mortar round that landed near the Green Zone, Baghdad's fortified government compound.
The voting for a new parliament started hours after rumors swept the capital that insurgents had poisoned the water supply. Warnings against drinking tap water were broadcast through the night over mosque loudspeakers, until the Health Ministry issued a televised statement saying the rumors were false.
That had little apparent effect on the voting. As the 6,280 polling centers opened at 7 a.m., people lined up to get paper ballots, checked off their preferred slate of candidates and dropped the sheets into boxes. They dipped index fingers into purple ink to show they had voted.
"I came to practice my right as a citizen," Fathi Jaralla, a 33-year-old lawyer, said after voting in Mosul. "I will not give up that right even if all the bombs in the world fall around my head."
Campaigning concluded Wednesday without major bloodshed. Officials said two civilians and two policemen were killed on the eve of voting by insurgents' roadside bombs.
There were also signs Wednesday of the sectarian tensions that threaten Iraq's future: Shiite Muslims protested what they called a televised slur on their religious leaders, and rumors spread of forged ballots smuggled from Iran.
But the relative lull in insurgent attacks appeared to reflect an intent by Sunnis to vote in large numbers for the first time since their minority sect lost its political dominance with the ouster of Hussein. Sunnis form the backbone of the insurgency against the U.S. military and the Shiite-led interim government.
Today's vote will give Iraq its first four-year legislature since the American-led invasion in 2003, putting into practice the national constitution approved in an Oct. 15 referendum. This is the third nationwide vote in less than a year, the final stage of a process to install a democracy and restore full sovereignty here.
The Bush administration, under political pressure at home to stabilize Iraq and start pulling out its 160,000 troops, is counting on the election to produce a more inclusive leadership and unify an increasingly fractious nation. A big turnout by Sunnis, who largely shunned the January election, could help divert much of the insurgency into peaceful politics, U.S. officials say.
The 275-seat Council of Representatives elected today will replace the interim National Assembly chosen Jan. 30. It will choose a president and prime minister and decide how much power and wealth to cede to federal regions -- a potentially explosive dispute that has set Sunnis in the resource-poor center and west of Iraq against ethnic Kurds and Shiites in the oil-rich north and south.
In a televised speech Wednesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, urged Iraq's 15 million voters to make election day "like a national wedding day, a day of national unity and of triumph over terrorism and forces hostile to democracy."
Voters in hospitals, barracks and prisons cast the first ballots Monday. On Tuesday, up to 2 million Iraqis living abroad began three days of voting.
American and Iraqi officials said they were expecting a higher participation rate than the 63% turnout for the October referendum. January's vote drew a 58% turnout.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq said the ballots, which vary in each of the 18 provinces, listed more than 7,000 candidates representing 19 multiparty coalitions and 307 political parties or independent candidacies.
The contest has set the religious parties of Iraq's ascendant Shiite majority against an array of challengers.
The United Iraqi Alliance, grouping 18 religiously conservative Shiite parties, has led the interim government in a coalition with Kurdish parties, the second-largest bloc in the current parliament. The Shiite alliance is expected to win the greatest number of legislative seats again, but not as many as the 140 it captured in January, in part because of discontent over the government's performance.