ASKAN, Iraq – Some couldn't read, but knew their party's identification number on the ballot. Others couldn't see, but were led to the polls by police. Across wide swathes of Iraq, especially in the southern Shiite (search) and northern Kurdish areas, Iraqis went to the polls Sunday, expressing fierce determination and pride, together with hope that the election will improve their hard lives.
"I don't have a job. I hope the new government will give me a job," said one voter, Rashi Ayash, 50, a former Iraqi lieutenant colonel.
From the early hours of Sunday morning, Iraqis stood in long lines that wrapped around street corners, defying militant threats of violence to cast their votes for the 275-member National Assembly. Dozens were killed as militants fired mortars, and in one town, a suicide bomber mingled with voters waiting outside a polling booth.
But people continued to vote undeterred.
"Am I scared? Of course I'm not scared. This is my country," said Fathiya Mohammed, 50.
Security was tight across the country. Iraqi police provided much of the frontline protection, checking women's' handbags and even babies wrapped in blankets, while female Iraqi guards patted down women voters.
Voters heading into a polling station in a boys school in Baghdad's middle-class Karada (search) district were searched twice, first at an outer perimeter about 40 yards from the school. Then they removed their jackets and the batteries from their cellular phones, which have been used in the past to detonate bombs. Finally they walked past coils of barbed wire under the eyes of sharpshooters on nearby rooftops.
Authorities banned cars from voting centers as part of security measures meant to stop car bombings, a rule that left some people struggling to reach the ballot boxes.
In the northern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah (search), a man carried 80-year-old Mohammed Karim Khader over his shoulders and trekked the last few steps to the polling station.
At a polling place in eastern Baghdad, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and held the hand of an elderly blind woman to guide her to the polls.
Fathiya Mohammed shrugged off the incessant threats of violence and donned her head-to-toe abaya before heading to her neighborhood polling station in the small town of Askan south of Baghdad.
"This is democracy," the elderly woman said proudly, holding up a thumb stained with the purple ink used to mark those who had voted. "This is the first day I feel freedom."
Turnout was brisk in mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods like Askan, and in heavily Shiite areas in Baghdad and Basra. Polling stations in heavily Sunni cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra were virtually deserted in the morning. By midday hundreds of people were voting in Samarra and the volatile city of Mosul in the north, though there were still big pockets with little turnout.
In the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Gov. Hamad Hmoud Shagti took to the radio to urge voting. "This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children's future," he said.
The prospect of impending violence was never far away.
When an unexplained boom sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers. Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations. Several shouted in unison: "We have no fear."
Electoral commission official Mijm Towirish said the fact that voters came to the polls showed Iraqis "broke a barrier of fear."
Voters all across the country said they hoped the election would bring them security, jobs and a better future.
"I came here to vote for our goal, which is freedom," said Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old Shiite voter in Baqouba north of Baghdad.