KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans chose a legislature for the first time in decades Sunday, embracing their newly recovered democratic rights and braving threats of Taliban (search) attacks to cast votes in schools, tents and mosques.
Violence in the hours before voting began and during the day killed 15 people, including a French commando in the U.S.-led coalition that is helping Afghans (search) build a democracy after a quarter-century of conflict. But there were no signs of a spectacular attack threatened by Taliban militants to disrupt the vote.
Sunday's vote was considered the last formal step toward democracy on a path set out after a U.S.-led force drove the Taliban from power in 2001, when they refused to hand over Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden (search) following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Washington hopes the political advances will undercut support for insurgents and let it begin withdrawing at least some of the 20,000 American soldiers providing security in Afghanistan, but there are worries that a quick pullout could embolden rebels.
A stepped-up campaign by insurgents over the past six months killed 1,200 people, including seven candidates and four election workers.
But despite the bloodshed, the focus on Sunday was about getting out the vote after intense efforts by United Nations officials and the U.S.-led coalition to organize the election and provide security for voters.
"We are making history," President Hamid Karzai said while casting his ballot. "It's the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."
Around 8 million people voted in last October's presidential election, and there were high hopes even more would turn out Sunday. But some officials in the field, as well as independent election monitors, said there appeared to be fewer people voting.
"It's hard to gauge the exact numbers, but the impression we have is that the turnout is lower," said Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, which had 14 observers monitoring the elections.
Chief electoral officer Peter Erben said voting started slowly, but "after the morning, it has seriously picked up all over Afghanistan."
Polls closed at 4 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT), although those already in line would be allowed to vote, Erben said.
Violence in the two days leading up to the vote left at least 22 people dead. Early Sunday, fierce fighting in eastern Afghanistan killed three militants and two Afghan policemen, while two American soldiers were wounded.
Despite the violence, there were no major disruptions in the vote, though a handful of polling centers closed temporarily because of gunfire and others stayed closed or opened late due to security fears, Erben said.
Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote for the 249-seat lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, and 420 seats on 34 provincial assemblies. Nearly 5,800 candidates — including 582 women — were on the ballots.
A quarter of the seats being voted on were reserved for women, who make up more than 42 percent of registered voters.
The more than 6,000 polling stations were guarded by about 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition and a separate NATO peacekeeping force.
Enthusiasm ran high.
"Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan," said Ali Safar, 62, standing in line to vote in Kabul. "We want dignity, we want stability and peace."
Vote counting begins Tuesday, and partial provisional results will be released once 20 percent of the ballots in a province are tallied. Complete provisional results are expected early next month.
Many people hoped the polls would marginalize the insurgents and end a spiral of violence that started in 1979 when Soviet troops invaded, then continued through a devastating civil war and the oppressive rule of the hard-line Taliban.
The Taliban said they would not attack civilians heading to polls but warned them to stay away from areas where militants might attack security forces and foreign troops.
Afghans clutching voter identification cards filed into schools with lessons still scrawled on blackboards or stepped over piles of shoes to cast ballots in mosques. Tents served as polling stations in remote areas.
With nearly three-quarters of the populace illiterate, voting was slow as people spent as much as 10 minutes wading through ballots up to seven pages long to find pictures of candidates or symbols that represent them. Each voter dipped a finger in indelible purple ink to prevent repeat voting.
Women, some in all-encompassing burqas, were segregated from men at many polling centers, entering through back doors and voting in separate rooms. Women also voted in the presidential election.
At a Kuchi nomad voting center east of Kabul, an Associated Press Television News cameraman saw women handing their ballots to men to fill out as electoral officials looked without intervening. Human Rights Watch said children appeared to vote at one polling station northeast of Kabul.
In the Kunar region, "three to five" polling centers were closed because of small-arms fire nearby, then reopened after security forces restored calm, Erben said.
Security forces said Saturday they had thwarted at least four bombings, including an attempt to blow up a massive dam.