Afghans braved Taliban rockets and polling site bombings on Saturday to vote for a new parliament in elections seen as a measure of the government's competence and commitment to democratic rule.
It was the first nationwide balloting since a fraud-marred presidential election last year undermined international support for President Hamid Karzai. Security has worsened since then, and the Taliban made good on threats to disrupt on Saturday's polling. At least three civilians were killed and the governor of Kandahar province survived a bomb attack, officials said. Observers had expected the vote to be far from perfect, but hoped it would accepted by the Afghan people as legitimate.
About 2,500 candidates were vying for 249 seats in the parliament.
The militants struck with rockets throughout the country - the first one slamming into the capital before dawn, followed by strikes in major eastern and southern cities. A rocket in northern Baghlan province killed two civilians, police spokesman Kamen Khan said. Another civilian was killed in an insurgent strike on a house in eastern Kunar province, NATO said.
The insurgents also launched scattered attacks on polling stations, and clashed with security forces, who killed at least five militants.
Afghan security officials dismissed the attacks as "insignificant," and said they did not hamper voting, adding that 92 percent of polling stations were open.
"There are no reports of major incidents," Afghan Election Commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi told reporters. However, there were some reports of voting irregularities and turnout nationwide appeared spotty at best, though the level of violence seemed lower than during last year's presidential poll, when more than 30 civilians and more than a dozen Afghan security forces were killed.
Polls officially closed at 4 p.m., but in areas of the capital with heavy turnout some shut earlier because of a shortage of ballots, while some others allowed voting past the deadline. Electoral officials said they had no separate process for determining turnout ahead of the counting of the ballots. The first partial tallies are expected in a few days. Full preliminary results are not expected until the end of the month and final results in late October.
In the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south, voters ventured out in small groups despite rocket strikes and bomb blasts. One bomb targeted the convoy of Gov. Tooryalai Wesa as it drove between voting centers but no one was injured, police officer Abdul Manan said.
Wesa still urged Kandaharis to come out and vote. "There's nothing to be afraid of," he said. "The enemy wants the election to fail, so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you'll have to come out and vote."
Voters even lined up in the Zhari district, west of Kandahar city, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar's radical Islamic movement was born 16 years ago. Hundreds of Afghan and international troops secured the area.
"People are fed up with the Taliban, that's why they're coming out more and more, so they can get rid of the Taliban," businessman Saleh Naeem said.
The Taliban had warned they would target anyone voting or working at the polls.
In the north, insurgents on motorbikes attacked a polling center in the Sayyad district of Sar-e-Pul province, scaring off 10 Afghan police trainees, breaking windows and ballot boxes and making off with some election materials, provincial police chief Gen. Bulal Neram said.
Election workers at the station managed to escape. In northern Kunduz province, militants tried to disrupt security in Gortepa, near Kunduz city. In a preventive strike, Afghan security forces killed five militants, injured two and arrested one, said Mohammad Ahmadzai, police spokesman for northern Afghanistan.
At a mosque in eastern Kabul, a former schoolteacher said she had traveled from her home on the outskirts of the city the night before because voting was safer in the center city.
"Even though I heard about those rocket attacks, I wanted to vote," said Aziza, 48, who gave only her first name. "Today is a historic day for Afghan people and it is very important for the restoration of democracy."
In eastern Ghazni province, a series of rockets fired into the provincial capital and surrounding areas scared many voters into staying home. However, gubernatorial spokesman Sayed Ismail Jahangir said people began arriving at polling centers in late morning.
In Jalalabad, some people at busy polling stations said candidates had provided buses to take them to the polls. Karzai cast his vote at a high school in the capital. He said he hoped voters would not be deterred by the attacks. The elections will "take the country many steps forward to a better future," Karzai said.
Last year's presidential election was similarly seen as a chance for the government to move forward to a more democratic future, then complaints of ballot-box stuffing _ much of it for Karzai's benefit _ and misconduct mounted.
Though Karzai still emerged the victor, the drawn-out process and his reluctance to acknowledge corruption led many of his international backers to question their commitment to Afghanistan. The international community has spent billions trying to shore up the Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency. Questions about fraud-prevention measures arose within hours of the polls opening on Saturday.
Campaign worker Mohammad Hawaid in Kabul complained that the ink applied to voters' fingers to prevent them from casting multiple ballots was not working. The ink is supposed to last 72 hours. "It can be wiped off," Hawaid said. "This is a major irregularity."
In Jalalabad, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with faked registration cards.
"The women coming here have so many cards that don't have the stamp and are not real cards but still they are voting," said Nazreen, a monitor for the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, which has dispatched observers throughout the country. Fake voter cards flooded into Afghanistan ahead of the balloting, but election officials had promised that poll workers were trained to spot them.
NATO'S senior civilian representative said some fraud was expected, and that it would not necessarily undermine the vote. "The real issue is the scale of that and does it affect the result. And does it affect the credibility of the election, not in our eyes but in the eyes of the Afghan people," Mark Sedwill said. At least 24 people were killed in election-related violence preceding the vote, including four candidates, according to observers.
NATO said on Saturday that coalition forces have conducted 12 operations in seven Afghan provinces in the past week against insurgents planning to disrupt the elections. Three insurgents were killed and several captured, the military alliance said.