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Iraqi Voters Defy Insurgents

Iraqis turned out to vote Sunday in their country's first free election in a half-century, defying insurgents who launched deadly suicide bombings and mortar strikes at polling stations. By the time the polls closed, at least 44 people were dead.

Despite the heavy attacks that began two hours after polls opened, turnout was brisk in many Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods, both in Baghdad and in southern cities like Basra.

President Bush called Sunday's elections in Iraq a success and promised the United States would continue trying to prepare Iraqis to secure their own country.

The voting appears to be the best moment for America's mission in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad and the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.

In Khadimiya, a mixed neighborhood in Baghdad, people were streaming in, despite explosions and gunfire nearby, reports CBS News Correspondent Charlie D'Agata.

Standing on the roof of the police station in Askan, in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad, observed a steady stream of voters - Sunni and Shia, men and women, young and old, some with their children, and many smiling and shaking hands as they waited their turn to enter one of two classrooms to cast their ballots.

Some of the voters exiting the polling place stopped to talk to neighbors who were still in line, telling them how the balloting works, in what is a totally new experience for all Iraqis.

Guarding the polling place from the roof of the police station, one Iraqi police commander exhorted his men over the radio, telling them not to be afraid.

In one sign of potential trouble, polls at first were deserted in mostly Sunni Muslim cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra around Baghdad, and in the restive, heavily Sunni northern city of Mosul.

By midday, however, hundreds of people were voting in Samarra and several hundred people were voting on Mosul's eastern side, which includes both Kurdish and Arab neighborhoods, witnesses said.

There were still big pockets with little turnout, though, and clashes had erupted between insurgents and Iraqi soldiers in western Mosul. In Baghdad's mainly Sunni area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open Sunday, residents said. In Beiji, a Sunni insurgent stronghold in northern Iraq, polling centers were all but deserted.

The chief U.N. adviser to the Iraqi election commission, Carlos Valenzuela, said turnout seemed to be good in most places, although he cautioned it was too early to know for sure.

He said there were some voters in Fallujah and Ramadi.

"There have been a number of attacks of course, as expected," Valenzuela said. But, he said: "These attacks have not stopped the operations."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a broadcast interview that the Iraqi elections are "going better than expected."

Asked if reports of better-than-expected turnout in areas where Sunni and Shiite Muslims live together indicated that a Sunni cleric boycott effort had failed, one of the main groups pushing the boycott seemed subdued.

"The association's call for a boycott of the election was not a fatwa (religious edict), but only a statement," said Association of Muslim Scholars spokesman Omar Ragheb. "It was never a question of something religiously prohibited or permitted. We never sought to force anyone to boycott."

Across Iraq, joy broke out in places as the day went on. At one polling place in Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance.

Another polling site in Baghdad ran out of ballots and was trying to get more, U.S. officials said.

At another in eastern Baghdad, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his AK-47 assualt rifle under one arm and held the hand of an elderly blind woman to guide her to the polls.

A driving ban seemed to discourage car bombs. But the insurgents improvised: Several used belts of explosives rather than cars rigged with bombs to launch their suicide missions.

The al Qaeda affiliate led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for at least four attacks on polling centers across Iraq. The claim, posted on a Web site, could not be verified.

In the most deadly attack, a suicide 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.

In a second suicide attack at a polling station, a bomber blew up himself, one policeman and two Iraqi soldiers. In a third suicide attack at a school in western Baghdad, three people and the bomber died, police said.

And in a fourth, at another school in eastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed himself and at least three others. Another five people died in other suicide attacks.

Also, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the home of Iraq's justice minister in western Baghdad in an apparent assassination attempt. The minister was not home but the attack killed one person, an Interior Ministry official said.

The rest were killed in shootings and explosions in several communities north of Baghdad.

Overall, eight of the 36 people killed were suicide bombers.

In addition, three people were killed when mortars landed near a polling station in Sadr City, the heart of Baghdad's Shiite Muslim community. Two others died when a mortar round hit a home in Amel, and a policeman died in a mortar attack on a polling station in Khan al-Mahawil, south of Baghdad.

In Mosul, the province's deputy escaped an assassination attempt, but his bodyguard was killed.

The heavy attacks started about 8:30 a.m., less than two hours after voting began, in Baghdad and cities including Baquoba, Basra, Mosul and Samarra. They eased around noon.

Even as the attacks raged nearby, voters turned out in large numbers in the poor Shiite community of Jisr Diyala in eastern Baghdad, with the number of voters increasing as the morning wore on.

"I don't have a job. I hope the new government will give me a job," said one voter, Rashi Ayash, 50, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi force. "I voted for the rule of law," he Ayash said after casting his vote.

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