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Iraqis Brave Bombs and Mortars to Vote in National Election

Polls closed across Iraq on Sunday as the war-weary population awaits results from the national election that will decide the future of the country's still-fragile democracy.

The election tested the mettle of the country's shaky security as insurgents killed 31 people across Iraq, unleashing a barrage of mortars intent on disrupting the historic day.

About 19 million Iraqis were eligible to vote on a government that will oversee the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The election is critical in determining whether Iraq can overcome the jagged sectarian divisions that have defined it since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Once the day's results are calculated, it could be months before Iraq's new parliament chooses a prime minister and forms a government.

SLIDESHOW: Iraqis Head to the Polls

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said voter turnout was "high if not higher" than expected, according to Reuters. Expectations prior to the national election were approximately 50 percent voter turnout.

Insurgents who vowed to disrupt the elections — which they saw as validating the Shiite-led government and the U.S. occupation — launched a spate of attacks across the city and country.

At least 14 people died in northeastern Baghdad after an explosion leveled a building, and mortar attacks in western Baghdad killed seven people in two different neighborhoods, police and hospital officials said.

In Baghdad's northeast Hurriyah neighborhood, where mosque loudspeakers exhorted people to vote as "arrows to the enemies' chest," three people were killed when someone threw a hand grenade at a crowd heading to the polls, according to police.

In the city of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, a bomb inside a polling center killed a policeman, Iraqi Army Col. Abdul Hussein said. There were also explosions elsewhere in the country, but no further reports of fatalities.

An Associated Press photographer on the scene of the collapsed building in Baghdad's northeastern Ur neighborhood described rescuers pulling bodies from the rubble.

Insurgents also launched mortars toward the Green Zone — home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister's office — and in the Sunni stronghold of Azamiyah police reported at least 20 mortar attacks in the neighborhood since day break.

Yet voters still came. In Azamiyah, Walid Abid, a 40-year-old father of two, was speaking as mortars landed several hundreds yards away.

"I am not scared and I am not going to stay put at home. Until when? We need to change things. If I stay home and not come to vote, Azamiyah will get worse," he said.

About 6,200 candidates are competing for 325 seats in the new parliament, Iraq's second for a full term of parliament since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion seven years ago this month.

Many view the election as a crossroads at which Iraq will decide whether to adhere to politics along the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines or move away from the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted, Sunni minority rule.

Iraqis hope it will help them achieve national reconciliation at a time when the United States has vowed to withdraw combat forces by late summer and all American troops by the end of next year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fighting for his political future against a coalition led by mainly Shiite religious groups — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also faces a challenge from secular alliance led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.

"These acts will not undermine the will of the Iraqi people," al-Maliki said Sunday morning, speaking to reporters after casting his ballot.

Security was tight across the capital. The borders have been sealed, the airport closed and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military and police have flooded the streets.

Extra checkpoints were set up across the city, and in some parts of central Baghdad, people could not go 50 yards without hitting another checkpoint.

A ban on small vehicles was lifted around the country, except in northern Ninevah province, to facilitate access to the polls, Maj. Gen. Ayden Khalid Qader, who's in charge of election security, on state-run Iraqiya television.

But many voters continued to proceed to the polling places on foot.

In keeping with the U.S. military's assertion that Iraqis are running the elections, the only visible American military presence was in the air or escorting election observers to and from the polls; four U.S. helicopter gunships could be seen in the sky over the Kazimiyah neighborhood.

The U.S., which has lost more than 4,300 troops in the nearly seven-year conflict, has fewer than 100,000 troops in the country — a number that is expected to drop to about 50,000 by the end of the summer.

Exiting the polls, Iraqis waved purple-inked fingers — the now-iconic image synonymous with voting in this oil-rich country home to roughly 28 million people.

Despite the violence and frustration that has set in after years of fighting and faulty government services, many Iraqis were still excited to vote.

In the city of Nasiriyah, in the Shiite south, crowds of people filled the streets — men in what appeared to be their best clothes were accompanied by women in long black cloaks and often children.

"I voted in 2005. There were a lot less people then," said Ahmed Saad Chadian. "Today participation is much higher."

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, dozens of voters also lined up to cast their ballot.

"We came to participate in this national day, and we don't care about the explosions," said Sahib Jabr, a 34-year-old old taxi driver.

President Jalal Talabani was among the first to vote Sunday morning in the Kurdish city of Sulamaniyah. Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is enmeshed in a tight race with an upstart political party called Change which is challenging the two Kurdish parties that have dominated Iraqi politics for years.

Fox News' Malini Wilkes and the Associated Press contributed to this report.