Iraqis are lining up to vote in the country's first open elections in more than 50 years despite a string of terror attacks. Officials said the first two hours of voting — which passed without an outrageous amount of bloodshed or violence — would set the tone for the day.
An Iraqi election official said that 72 percent of eligible Iraqi voters had turned out so far nationwide. The official, Adel al-Lami of the Independent Electoral Commission, offered no overall figures of the actual number of Iraqis who have voted to back up the claim.
As the day progressed, at least nine deadly homicide bombings and mortar strikes shook several polling stations across Iraq (search). The attacks killed at least 31 people, including four policemen and two Iraqi soldiers.
A Web site statement purportedly from insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the election-day attacks.
Despite the violence, turnout was brisk in some Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods. Even in the small town of Askan in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad — a mixed Sunni-Shiite area — 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centers. More walked toward the polls.
"This is democracy," said an elderly woman in a black abaya, Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.
Leading secular Shiite candidate Ahmad Chalabi (search) told FOX News that the majority of Iraqis are not afraid and are determined to vote. They are grateful to the "young men and women of the U.S. forces for helping us get to this day.
"The momentum of the millions of people voting will create its own security," he said.
Casting his vote, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) called it "the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny."
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."
An election day ban on most private cars forced relatives and even police to help elderly people to the polls. Some were carried in the arms of relatives, or taken in push cars. At one polling place in eastern Baghdad, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and guided the hand of an elderly blind woman, helping her to the polls.
In the most deadly attack Sunday, a homicide bomber blew himself up at a polling station in western Baghdad, killing himself, three policemen and a civilian, officials said. Witness Faleh Hussein said the bomber approached a line of voters and detonated an explosives belt. Six people were also injured.
In a second homicide attack at a school in western Baghdad, three people and the bomber died, police said.
And in a third homicide mission, at a polling center in a western part of Baghdad, one policemen and the bomber died, police said.
Also, three people were killed when mortars landed near a polling station in Sadr City, the heart of Baghdad's Shiite Muslim community. Seven to eight others were wounded, police said.
In addition, two people were killed when a mortar round missed a school serving as a polling center and hit a nearby home in southwestern Baghdad, said police Capt. Mohammed Taha.
Another policeman was killed in a mortar attack on a polling station in Khan al-Mahawil, south of Baghdad.
"There will be some isolated attacks here and there, but they will not stop the voting," said Majid Lazem Fartousi, one of 159 candidates on the ticket of the Democratic Iraqi Movement.
Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer was one of the first to vote at the convention center serving as election headquarters in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Al-Yawer called his vote his country's first step "toward joining the free world."
As poll workers watched, al-Yawer marked two ballots — one for the 275-member National Assembly and the other for provincial legislatures — and then dropped them into boxes. A poll worker handed him an Iraqi flag as he left.
"I'm very proud and happy this morning," al-Yawer told reporters. "I congratulate all the Iraqi people and call them to vote for Iraq."
Al-Yawer's casting of one of the first ballots was highly symbolic, since he is a Sunni Muslim and could possibly influence fellow Sunnis. The Iraqi government is deeply concerned that Sunnis will elect not to participate in the election.
A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen the tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The polls were deserted in heavily Sunni cities like Fallujah (search), Ramadi and Samarra west and north of Baghdad.
The country is on high alert. Voters began filing into nearly 5,200 polling stations, where workers checked their identifications before letting them cast ballots. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops are on the streets and on standby to protect voters.
In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, only seven people showed up in the first two hours of voting at a school in the city center, while in the diverse city of Baquoba, jubilant voters danced and clapped outside a polling station.
The election is a major test of President Bush's (search) goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 troops.
More than 1,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a U.S. Marine killed in combat Sunday in Iraq's restive Anbar province. No details were released on the latest death.
Insurgents have recently stepped up their pre-election campaign of violence. On Saturday, terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone, killing one civilian Defense Department employee and one naval officer.
Also Saturday, eight people were killed in a homicide bombing and a roadside explosive killed a U.S. soldier.
Iraq's interim prime minister said that the "success" of the election would mean America's sacrifices were made in the service of freedom.
"They have not fallen in vain. They have fallen for a just cause ... and we are witnessing now some of the results of this very sacred cause," Ayad Allawi told FOX News. "Their blood and the blood of Iraqi soldiers have not gone in vain."
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time on Sunday, or 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. EST. Iraqis will choose a 275-member National Assembly and provincial councils in the country's 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish self-ruled area of the north will select a new regional parliament.
Final results will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday.
FOX News' Dana Lewis, Geraldo Rivera, Jane Roh, Shepard Smith, David Lee Miller, Megan Dowd and The Associated Press contributed to this report.