For the first time in more than 50 years, Iraqis cast ballots in democratic elections Sunday and took the first steps to declaring how they wanted Iraq to be governed.

As estimated 8 million people — 60 percent of eligible voters — braved violence and calls for a boycott to vote in Iraq (search). A string of homicide bombings and mortar volleys killed at least 44 people, including nine attackers.

U.S. and Iraqi forces sought to clamp down on violence by imposing a strict curfew and seriously restricting traffic around polling places. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters.

Women in black abayas whispered prayers at the sound of a nearby explosion as they waited to vote at one Baghdad (search) polling station. But the mood for many was upbeat: Civilians and policemen danced with joy at one of the five polling stations where photographers were allowed, and some streets were packed with voters walking shoulder-to-shoulder to vote. The elderly made their way, hobbling on canes or riding wheelchairs; one elderly woman was pushed along on a wooden cart, another man carried a disabled 80-year-old on his back.

"This is democracy," said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.

"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," President Bush told reporters at the White House four hours after the polls closed. He did not take questions.

Condoleezza Rice (search), Bush's new secretary of state, made the rounds of Sunday news talk shows to further argue the president's case.

"Iraqis have taken a huge step forward. And they have hard work ahead of them, but this is a great day for the Iraqi people," Rice told "FOX News Sunday" with Chris Wallace.

Iraqi politicians also cast the elections as a huge success.

Casting his vote, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) called it "the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny."

"We have defeated the terrorists today," Ahmad Chalabi (search), a secular Shiite who is running for the National Assembly on the United Iraqi Alliance list, told FOX News. "The winds of freedom are sweeping across Iraq."

The election will create a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures. The assembly will draw up the country's permanent constitution and will select a president and two deputy presidents, who in turn will name a new prime minister and Cabinet to serve for 11 months until new elections are held.

With Arabs across the Middle East watching the vote, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telephoned Allawi to congratulate him on the election, saying he hoped it would "open the way for the restoration of calm and stability." The president of the United Arab Emirates also phoned his good wishes.

Looking for Trends Among Religious Groups

Officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it would be some time before any turnout figure was confirmed. No preliminary results were expected before Monday at the earliest, and final results will not be known for seven to 10 days, the election commission said.

Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle (search) north and west of the capital, particularly Fallujah, Ramadi and Beiji. In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.

A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, were expected to vote in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.

"I feel elated, exhilarated in fact, because I think this is a very important step forward," said Adnan Pachachi (search), a prominent Iraqi Sunni politician who had called for the vote to be postponed because of violence.

Pachachi said in an interview with FOX News that he didn't talk about whether Sunnis or Shiites would end up in control. "The division should be between those who want a secularist democracy in Iraq and those who want a religious government," he said.

After a slow start, voting appeared heavy in Shiite and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad but low in some heavily Sunni areas. Sunnis in mixed areas may have voted in greater numbers there because pressure to boycott was less intense — and chances of retaliation lower because they would not stand out at the polls. There are few ways by sight to distinguish Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

Hadi Nassif Jassem was pushed by his son on a wheeled office chair to a polling station in Baghdad's Saadoun neighborhood.

"The vote today was great. It will raise high the name of the Arab nation and Iraq. We haven't lived such a democracy for 50 years," said the 54-year-old former truck driver, who said he became crippled because surgery he needed could not be done in Iraq.

A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.

The elections will also give Kurds a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of marginalization under the Baath Party that ruled the country for 34 years.

"This proves that we are now free," said Akar Azad, 19, who came to the polls with his wife and sister. In addition to the assembly and provincial votes, Kurds are also choosing a regional parliament for their zone of northern Iraq.

Another Deadly Day in Iraq

In a reminder of the dangers that persist in Iraq, a British C-130 military transport plane crashed north of Baghdad about a half hour after polls closed at 5 p.m. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has confirmed that there were British deaths in the crash, but did not say how many. There was no word on the cause or how many people were on board, but variations of the C-130 in the British Air Force can carry up to 128 infantrymen.

Guerrilla attacks began within two hours of the balloting's start Sunday morning. All but one of the day's nine homicide attacks came in Baghdad, mostly against polling sites, using bombers on foot with explosives strapped to their bodies since private cars were banned from the streets.

In one of the deadliest attacks of the day, a bomber got onto a minibus carrying voters to the polls near Hillah, south of Baghdad, and detonated his explosives, killing himself and at least four other people, the Polish military said.

A deadly mortar volley hit Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and others struck voters at several sites in Balad, and Kirkuk in the north and Mahawil south of the capital. Across the country, at least 35 people and nine homicide bombers were killed.

The group Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for election-day attacks in a Web statement, although the claim could not be verified.

A few hours after polls closed at 5 p.m., thunderous explosions reverberated through central Baghdad, though their cause was unknown.

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."

"Am I scared? Of course I'm not scared. This is my country," said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya cloak.

Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, told FOX News it was impossible in the days leading up to the election to determine what the threats of violence would do. But the level of participation, he said, should be seen as the "death knell for the insurgency."

"With Iraqis perhaps for the first time beginning to believe they are in control of their own destiny, the environment in which the insurgents are operating is going to be much less hospitable," Perle said.

In Ramadi, U.S. troops tried to coax voters with loudspeakers, preaching the importance of every ballot. The governor of the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, went on the radio to lobby for a higher turnout. "This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children's future," he said.

Several hundred people turned out to vote in eastern districts of the heavily Sunni city of Mosul — Iraq's third largest city and a center for insurgent violence in past months. But in western parts of Mosul, clashes erupted between guerrillas and Iraqi soldiers.

Just before the close, one official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq put turnout at 72 percent, but he later said that did not include the largely Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and the commission said the figure was based on "very rough, word-of-mouth estimates."

Iraqis in 14 nations also held the last of three days of overseas balloting on Sunday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Sunday's balloting "the first step" toward democracy. "It's a beginning, not an end," he said.

FOX News' Dana Lewis, Geraldo Rivera, Mike Emanuel, Shepard Smith, David Lee Miller, Megan Dowd, J. Jennings Moss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.