BAGHDAD — Defying a sustained barrage of mortars and rockets in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqis went to the polls in strength on Sunday to choose a new parliament meant to outlast the U.S. military presence here.
"Iraqis are not afraid of bombs anymore," said Maliq Bedawi, 45, defiantly waving his finger stained with purple ink to indicate he had voted, as he stood near the rubble of an apartment building in Baghdad that was hit by a huge rocket in the deadliest attack of the day.
Insurgents here vowed to disrupt the election, and the concerted wave of attacks — as many as 100 thunderous blasts in the capital alone starting just before the polls opened — did frighten voters away, but only initially.
The shrugging response of voters could signal a fundamental weakening of the insurgency's potency. At least 38 people were killed in Baghdad. But by day's end, turnout was reported to be higher than expected, and certainly higher than in the last parliamentary election in 2005, marred by a similar level of violence.
Official results are not expected for at least a few days.Sunnis who largely boycotted previous elections voted in force, and an intense competition for Shiite votes drove up participation in Baghdad and the south.
After seven years of a war whose rationale remains deeply disputed in the United States, the Obama administration looked to the election as a test of Iraq's stability, a last milestone before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The short and fierce political campaign could end up either solidifying Iraq's nascent democracy or leaving the country fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines. But it was arguably the most open, most competitive election in the nation's long history of colonial rule, dictatorship and war.
Despite a long delay, disputes over candidates' qualifications, arrests, assassinations and finally an all-out assault by insurgents on Sunday morning, the election took place with only a few reports of ballot irregularities. And by Sunday night, something rare was emerging in a region dominated by authoritarian governments: an election cliffhanger.
After the polls closed at 5 p.m., party leaders said two coalitions seemed to have fared best: the one led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has campaigned for a second time on improved security in Iraq, and another led by the former interim leader, Ayad Allawi, who has promised to overcome Iraq's sectarian divides.
As expected, neither coalition appeared to have secured an outright majority of seats in the country's new 325-member parliament, and so it was unclear whether Maliki had succeeded in winning another four-year term.
That sets the stage for a period of turmoil — months, not weeks, politicians here predict — as the winning coalition tries to cobble together enough votes to elect a prime minister.
In Washington, President Barack Obama praised the vote. "I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence and who exercised their right to vote today," he said in a statement. "Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process."
The insurgent attacks began even before polls opened, with explosions reverberating through the early morning haze. For a while, the intensity recalled the worst days of bloodshed in 2006 and 2007, when Iraq teetered on the precipice of civil war.
Dozens of mortar shells and rockets crashed down on the capital, including at least six that landed in the Green Zone, where government ministries and embassies are clustered behind heavy fortifications. At least 13 bombs exploded.
The deadliest single attack occurred when what the police said was a Katyusha rocket collapsed an apartment building, located in the Ur neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad. The Interior Ministry later said that 25 were killed there.
Bedawi, who witnessed the carnage, said the attack hardened the resolve of Iraqis to vote. "Everyone went," he said. "They were defiant about what happened. Even people who didn't want to vote before, they went after this rocket."
The extensive use of mortars and rockets suggested that a weakened insurgency had to shift tactics, perhaps because it was unable to maneuver cars or suicide bombers into the cities because of the intense security lockdown, with checkpoints erected every few hundred yards in some places.
The insurgents still fighting in today's Iraq face a far stronger government, capable now of saturating the country with police and soldiers. Even more important, they face a people far less willing to support, or even sympathize with, violent resistance against the country's democratic government.
Iraqis, seemingly inured to violence, even mocked the attacks.
"We have experienced three wars before," Ahmed Ali, a supporter of Maliki, said in Ur, "so it was just the play of children that we heard."
After three hours, the barrage subsided, and voting picked up as the country's politicians implored Iraqis to cast their ballots. A ban on vehicles in the city was lifted, making it easier for people to reach polling places.
Maliki, the Shiite who has served as prime minister since 2006, cast his ballot at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone even as explosions rumbled like thunderclaps. In a televised interview afterward, he, too, expressed defiance and optimism that the turnout would not be diminished by the violence.
"Normally the beautiful days in life come after fatigue and difficulties," he said. "The difficult labor produces a more beloved result."
The attacks, not limited to Baghdad, though it was less lethal outside the capital, united Iraq leaders across party lines.
"These are the messengers of Iraq's enemies, the enemies of democracy," said Ammar al-Hakim, a leader of a Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, that hopes to deny Maliki a second term. "It is a desperate and weak message."
Allawi also expressed resolve after the attacks, though in a late bit of campaigning, he criticized the "weakness" in the government's security preparation in televised remarks. "You know that Iraqis do not get scared," he said. "They will not be scared by tanks, bombings and explosions. They fought the British, as it is known, with simple weapons and kicked out the British empires. So this intimidation will not work."