Al-Qaeda in Iraq suffered a major blow after Sunni voters largely ignored its death threats and turned out in force to cast their ballots in a crucial weekend general election, observers said. Electoral authorities have put the final turnout in Sunday's vote at 62.4 percent, and Sunni participation was seen as a defining aspect of the ballot, especially in traditional Al-Qaeda strongholds.
In the run-up to the vote, the Islamic state of Iraq (ISI), the Qaeda front in the country, threatened on a jihadist website to kill all Iraqis, and especially Sunnis, who went to the polls.
"The Islamic state declares... a curfew on election day... throughout Iraq and especially in Sunni areas," US monitors SITE quoted ISI as saying in an Internet posting.
The Qaeda front warned that anyone who defies the curfew will "unfortunately expose himself to the anger of Allah and then to all kinds of weapons of the mujahedeen."
As polling centres opened in Baghdad early on Sunday morning, the capital came under a hail of bomb, mortar and rocket attacks that killed 38 people.
But Sunni Arabs, who had massively boycotted the last polls in 2005, were undeterred, with 70 percent of the electorate voting in Diyala and Salaheddin provinces, 61 percent in Anbar and 67 percent in Nineveh.
"The participation of the Sunnis is a major step in the defeat of Al-Qaeda, despite the threats and the violence," said Hamid Fadel, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
"The Sunnis went to vote. They demonstrated their commitment to Iraq, to democracy, and this vote proves that they are a very important part of the political process," he added.
Fadel's assessment has been echoed in Europe and the United States where leaders praised Iraqis for their courage.
US President Barack Obama set the tone on Sunday when he hailed the "strong turnout" and said the day would go down as "an important milestone in Iraqi history.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the vote "bears testimony to the will of the Iraqi people to move beyond the ordeals of the past, to reject terrorism and shows their determination to build a democratic Iraq that looks to the future."
Top US officials in Baghdad agreed.
"Iraqis turned out in large numbers to vote, showing their determination not to let terrorists derail their desire to participate in choosing their leaders," US ambassador Christopher Hill and the head of the US army in Iraq Ray Odierno said in a joint statement.
The UN's envoy to Iraq, Ad Melkert, also agreed. "This day has been a triumph of reason over confrontation and violence," he said about Sunday's election.
"All those who resorted to violence are the real losers of the elections."
Al-Qaeda faced setbacks in Baghdad, but also in its traditional Sunni strongholds like Fallujah, where its militants could not approach close enough polling stations to fire missiles or carry out suicide bombings.
The Islamists had already been defeated militarily after a major offensive launched in 2007 and analysts believe that after Sunday's setback, they also suffered a blow on the ideological level.
This was vividly clear on Sunday in Fallujah, where first-time voter Kamal Fawaz urged fellow Iraqis to "vote against Al-Qaeda" as he went to cast his ballot.
"They terrorised us for many years. Now, we must drive them out because they are doing wrong to the country," said Kamal.
The participation of Iraq's Sunni population was one of the defining aspects of the elections and should see their return to the political scene, which they have largely been excluded from since the 2005 boycott.