As U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers step up security to brace for Sunday's vote, Iraqis living overseas have already begun casting ballots.
Iraqi expatriates began casting ballots in Sydney Friday in their nation's first independent elections in more than 50 years.
Amid tight security at a converted furniture warehouse, young children mingled with elderly Kurdish women in head-to-toe black robes. About two-dozen people jostled to be among the first to vote at 7 a.m., which was 3 a.m. EST.
"This is a long dream that now comes true," said 56-year-old Karim Jari before casting his vote. "We hope this is a new beginning."
But meanwhile Thursday,as insurgents clashed with U.S. troops and blew up a school slated to serve as a polling center, pre-election violence that followed the deadliest day for U.S. troops since the war's start.
About 300,000 Iraqi, U.S. and other multinational troops and police will provide security for the in-country voting, which will take place at 5,300 polling centers.
Australia is one of 14 nations where Iraqis living outside their country can vote — and the first country in the world to begin collecting ballots because of its time zone. In Iraq, the vote is only Sunday. But Iraqis living outside their country can vote between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. local time on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Many historians consider the last free elections in Iraq to have taken place in 1953, when opposition won seats in an election held under British colonial influence. Iraq was a constitutional monarchy at the time.
In other developments:
U.S. troops packed extra uniforms and ammunition before moving out of their main base Thursday to take up positions around Baghdad, part of a massive security operation to protect voters during weekend elections that insurgents have vowed to disrupt.
Iraqi police and soldiers will play the more visible role, manning checkpoints and securing the polls — many of which have already been bombed and rocketed by insurgents ahead of Sunday's vote.
American troops will be around, nonetheless — backing up the Iraqis in the event of major violence the Iraqis can't handle, U.S. and Iraqi commanders said.
The U.S. presence could make American troops easier targets, and it also has raised concerns the United States might be seen as orchestrating the elections.
Patrol boats will ply the country's rivers, tanks will protect important roads and bridges, and warplanes will streak overhead. Medical teams will be on alert and nationwide restrictions on traffic will be imposed from Saturday to Monday to try to deter car bombs.
Insurgents have promised to disrupt the voting with car bombings and other attacks, and U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of increased violence ahead of the vote. The bloodshed continued Thursday, with bombings and gunfire from militants reported in several cities.
Voters will choose a National Assembly that will govern the country and draft a permanent constitution, and also choose provincial councils in the 18 provinces. Those living in the Kurdish self-governing region of the north will also choose a regional parliament.
To prevent major disruptions, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib has announced the curfew would be extended from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. starting Friday through Monday.
The government has already said it will close Baghdad International Airport and seal the nation's borders during the election period. Weapons will be banned, and al-Naqib announced rewards for Iraqis who turn in "terrorists."
Local officials have been authorized to add extra security measures in their own areas if they see fit. Many details of the overall security plan have been kept secret, officials say, to avoid tipping off the rebels.
At the same time, U.S. teams also have been out in villages and towns across Iraq encouraging people to vote. A respectable turnout in the face of insurgent threats would be seen as rejection of the insurgency by millions of rank-and-file Iraqis.