BAGHDAD, Iraq - Millions of Iraqis, from tribal sheiks to entire families with children in tow, turned out Thursday to choose a parliament in a mostly peaceful election - among the freest ever in the Arab world.
So many Sunni Arabs voted that ballots ran out in some places. The strong participation by Sunnis, the backbone of the insurgency, bolstered U.S. hopes that the election could produce a broad-based government capable of ending the daily suicide attacks and other violence that have ravaged the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Difficult times lie ahead, however. The coalition of religious Shiite parties that dominates the current government is expected to win the biggest portion of the 275 seats, but will almost certainly need to compromise with rival factions, with widely differing views, to form a government.
Up to 11 million of the nation's 15 million registered voters took part, election officials estimated, though they had no official turnout figure.
Many Sunnis said they voted to register their opposition to the Shiite-led government and to speed the end of the U.S. military presence.
"Liberation is the most important thing for all Iraqis," said Sunni grocer Omar Badry. "I don't care if we die of thirst and hunger, as long as the Americans leave."
Opposition to the American military presence runs deeper among Sunni Arabs, the minority group which enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam, than among any of Iraq's other religious and ethnic communities.
While Sunnis were defiant, Shiites and Kurds seemed hopeful the new government would be more successful than the outgoing one in restoring security.
A common theme, however, appeared to be a yearning for an end to the turmoil that has engulfed Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition invaded in March 2003 to topple Saddam's regime.
"The first thing we want from the new government is security," said Hussein Ali Abbas, a 66-year-old Shiite as he voted at Baghdad's city hall. "We are surviving but it is a struggle."
It could take at least two weeks before final results are announced, officials said.
Violence was light. Insurgent groups, as promised, generally refrained from attacks on polling stations. In the Sunni Arab militant stronghold of Ramadi, masked gunmen provided by local sheiks guarded polling stations, frisking voters as they entered.
Thursday's election appeared on track to record more votes than any other parliamentary election in an Arab country - though more than 17 million people voted in a May referendum in Egypt, and more than 14.6 million in a September referendum in Algeria, according to IFES, a nonprofit organization that supports building democratic societies.
"The number of people participating is very, very high, and we have had very few irregularities," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press. "It is a good day so far - good for us, good for Iraq."
President Bush called it "a major step forward in achieving our objective." U.S. officials hope a broad-based government will be able to quell the bloodshed so that the United States can begin to bring troops home next year.
A successful election followed by an effective, broad-based government would also give the Bush administration a significant victory in its campaign to spread democracy through the Middle East. But many Shiite politicians have little interest in concessions to Sunnis on their key demands, including a greater share of power and allowing a role for Saddam loyalists in public life.
As a result, negotiations to create a new government - including a prime minister - could drag on for weeks just as they did following January's election, when many Sunnis stayed away from the polls because of threats of violence or to honor boycott calls. Another prolonged political struggle might worsen sectarian tensions.
Still, Iraqi leaders expressed relief that the election had passed relatively smoothly.
"The time has come to build Iraq with our own hands and to use the great wealth that God has granted to Iraq to rebuild Iraq so that we can turn our poverty into wealth and our misery into happiness," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said.
As polls opened, a mortar shell exploded near Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, slightly wounding two civilians and a U.S. Marine, the U.S. military said.
In northern Iraq, a civilian was killed when a mortar shell hit near a polling station in Tal Afar, and a grenade killed a school guard near a voting site in Mosul.
But the incidents did little to discourage Iraqis, some of whom turned out wrapped in their flag on a bright, sunny day. Afterward, many displayed a purple ink-stained index finger - a mark to guard against multiple voting.
One jubilant Shiite voter in Baghdad proudly displayed all 10 of his fingers stained with ink.
In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, streets were transformed into a playground, with children playing games and turning roads into soccer fields.
Turnout was most striking in Sunni Arab areas, including the Baghdad district of Azamiyah. Last January, few voters turned out in Azamiyah, where Saddam took refuge when Baghdad fell.
Tareg Moustafa Abdullah, 70, said he regretted boycotting the January election, which allowed Shiites and Kurds to win control. "We ended up with people who do not know God," he said.
In Fallujah, the former Sunni insurgent bastion seized by U.S. forces in November 2004, 11 of the city's 35 polling stations did not receive ballot boxes, while some sites ran out of ballots in the morning, said Mayor Dhari al-Arsan.
He said some voters "thought it was done purposely," but he attributed the lack of ballot boxes to the large turnout. "Today we are witnessing the biggest democratic process," al-Arsan said.
Election commission spokesman Farid Ayar said officials opened only 167 of the planned 207 election centers in Anbar province because of security. Anbar includes Ramadi and Fallujah.
Turnout was also reported high across the Shiite south, including Basra, where the director of one polling center, Amjad Mahdi, estimated more than 70 percent of the 5,000 registered voters at his facility had cast ballots.
With a nationwide vehicle ban in effect, most Iraqis walked to the polls. Streets were generally empty of cars, except for police, ambulances and a few others with permits.
Ethnic tensions arose in Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen. Norjan Adel, a poll watcher for the Turkoman Front, complained of irregularities by the Kurds, including multiple voting.
Iraqi police at one polling station in Mosul, however, were caught giving illiterate Kurdish voters misinformation on how to mark their ballots. Some Kurds complained their names had been stricken from voting rolls.
In Mandali, a city on the border with Iran, provincial police said they received reports that Iraqi soldiers were urging civilians to vote for Shiites or "go home."
Despite the complaints, Chiman Saleh, a Kurd in Kirkuk, said election day made her think of her two brothers killed by Saddam's forces in the 1980s.
"This is day is revenge for Saddam," she said. "This is one of the times that Iraqis are free to choose their candidates."