Bomb and rocket attacks killed at least 24 people as Iraqis voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election that put Iraq's security forces and its fledgling democracy to the test before US troops leave.
Blasts rumbled across Baghdad and other cities as scores of mortar rounds, rockets and roadside bombs exploded near polling stations in a coordinated campaign designed to scare voters. Sunni Islamist militants had vowed to wreck the voting for Iraq's second full-term parliament since the 2003 US invasion.
Iraq's political course will be decisive for President Barack Obama's plans to halve UStroop levels over the next five months and withdraw entirely by end-2011 and was watched closely by oil companies planning to invest billions in Iraq.
In the deadliest attacks, 12 people died when a bomb blew up a Baghdad apartment block and four were killed in a similar explosion at another residential building. A Katyusha rocket killed four people elsewhere in the capital of seven million.
At least 65 people were wounded around the country.
Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said only 15 people had been killed in the capital.
Despite the violence, the US military said insurgents had "fallen short" in attempts to intimidate voters.
Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said only two of 50,000 polling stations had to be closed briefly for security reasons.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari described the attacks as largely random mortar fire meant to frighten people.
"They will not be able to deter the voters," Zebari said.
Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, the Baghdad security spokesman, said most of the rockets and mortar bombs had been fired from mainly Sunni districts in and around the city.
"We are in a state of combat. We are operating in a battlefield and our warriors are expecting the worst," he said.
Moussawi said a car ban aimed at foiling vehicle bombs had been lifted after less than four hours of voting. Curbs on buses and trucks stayed in force.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate, had warned Iraqis not to vote and vowed to attack those who defy them.
The 96,000 US troops still in Iraq stayed in the background, underscoring the waning American role in Iraq.
The 19 million eligible voters in the ethnically and religiously divided country can pick between mainly Shi'ite Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall and their secular rivals.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, urged all parties to accept the election results.
"He who wins today may lose tomorrow, and he who loses today may win tomorrow," he said after casting his ballot in the fortified Green Zone enclave.
One of Maliki's opponents, ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, has already complained of irregularities in early voting.
Allawi's secular list is tapping into exasperation with years of conflict, poor public services and corruption, and hopes to gain support from the once privileged Sunni minority.
About 6,200 candidates from 86 factions are vying for 325 parliamentary seats. No bloc is expected to win a majority, and it may take months to form a government, risking a vacuum that armed groups such as Iraq's al Qaeda offshoot might exploit.
COMPETITIVE ELECTION Few elections in the Middle East have been as competitive as this one. Its conduct could determine how democracy in Iraq affects a region used to kings and presidents-for-life.
"Today is the day when Iraqis speak while others keep silent," declared Ammar al-Hakim, Shi'ite leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), after voting.
Maliki, whose State of Law coalition is claiming credit for improved security since sectarian warfare peaked in 2006-07, faces a challenge from ISCI and his other former Shi'ite allies, derided by Sunni militants as pawns of neighbouring Iran.
Anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, speaking at a rare news conference in Tehran, said holding an election under the "shadow of occupation" was illegitimate, but urged Iraqis to vote anyway to pave the way for "liberation" from USforces.
Sadr galvanised anti-US sentiment after the 2003 invasion but faded from the political scene after vanishing, ostensibly to embrace religious studies in Iran, more than two years ago.
Sadr's Mehdi Army, once a feared militia, has stepped away from combat, but his political movement is seeking a comeback, running in harness with ISCI, its former Shi'ite rival.
In contrast to the previous election in 2005, Iraqis can vote for individual candidates this time, not just party lists.
"Democracy in Iraq is chaotic. Everyone lies," said Abdul Rasheed al-Tamimi, a labourer in the Shi'ite city of Najaf.
"I'm only voting because it's an open list and I know the candidate personally. I can hold him to account if he breaks his pledges."
In Sulaimaniya in Iraq's Kurdish north, Fatma Aziz remembered her late husband as she cast her vote.
"When I put the ballot paper in the box, my tears fell ... I am sure he watched me from the grave while I voted for the Kurdish people," she said. "My vote will heal my wounds from when the Iraqi army shot him dead in Saddam's time."
In Anbar province, a Sunni bastion, tribal sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha said Sunnis were hoping the poll would make them feel they had a real stake in their now Shi'ite-dominated country.
"Change is our goal. We want to put fresh blood in the political process," said Abu Risha, a leader of the so-called Awakening Councils which helped the US military push back a raging al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency.