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Iraq Transition

Milestone elections begin in Iraq

Polls open in country's first free vote in a half-century

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports on concerns leading into Iraq's elections.

A rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad kills two Americans.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports on insurgent threats to Iraq's elections.

Security measures in Iraq are aimed at stopping violence on election day.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
• Gallery: Iraqis prepare to vote
Do you believe Sunday's elections will lead to a democratic Iraq?

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A trickle of Iraqis have begun voting in milestone elections designed to steer the country down the road of democracy.

Polls opened across Iraq at 7 a.m. (11 p.m. Saturday ET), under the watchful eye of Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops.

Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer was among the first to vote in the country's first free elections in half a century, following decades of brutal oppression and nearly two perilous years of war and insurgency.

"Deep in my heart, I feel that Iraqis deserve free elections," al-Yawer said after voting in Baghdad, shortly after polls opened.

"This will be our first step towards joining the free world and being a democracy that Iraqis will be proud of."

In Baghdad alone, 15,000 U.S. soldiers were on patrol for the voting, which ends at 5 p.m. (9 a.m. Sunday ET).

As the voting began, the looming question was how many of the 14.2 million Iraqis registered to vote would cast ballots, amid vows by insurgents to "wash" the streets with "voters' blood."

Of particular concern was the turnout of Sunnis in central Iraq, where the violence has been most pronounced in the past few weeks.

Iraqi officials conceded that violence was likely to occur, but they urged voters not to let the threat deter them from exercising the democratic right to choose their leaders.

"Your participation will foil the terrorists," said Thair al-Naqib, a spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "The elections are a great success for the people -- it will represent the rule of law, not the rule of violence."

Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said he was "fairly optimistic" about the security measures that have been put in place at 30,000 polling stations across the California-size country.

"At the end of the day, I'm quite confident that between the Iraqi police, military and the coalition, there will be a relatively secure environment across Iraq so the Iraqi people can vote safely," he said.

Iraqis are electing a 275-member transitional National Assembly, which will draft a new constitution and pick the country's next president and two vice presidents. The president, in turn, will select a prime minister.

Voters are also electing members of 18 provincial councils. In addition, residents of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region are electing a Kurdish parliament.

The night before, elaborate security measures, including travel restrictions and a ban on vehicle traffic, gave normally bustling Baghdad the appearance of a ghost town. The country's borders and airspace are sealed, and a nighttime curfew was in effect.

Lengthy lists on ballots

After navigating security checkpoints to get to their polling places, Iraqi voters face a lengthy ballot on which they may choose one of 111 electoral slates competing for National Assembly seats. Due to security concerns, names of the 7,000 candidates vying for office weren't revealed until the final days of January.

Each slate will get a number of seats in the new assembly proportional to the vote it receives nationwide. Two broad-based slates -- the United Iraqi Alliance and the Iraqi List -- are expected to lead the pack.

The United Iraqi Alliance is a Shiite-dominated slate of candidates backed by a leading cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. While most of its support comes from the Shiite majority -- about 60 percent of the population -- the alliance also includes some smaller Sunni and Kurdish groups.

Included in the alliance is the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, who had a close relationship with Washington before the war but later fell out of favor amid questions about whether he had supplied misleading information about Saddam's weapons capability.

The Iraqi List is led by Allawi, who became the face of Iraqi government after sovereignty was restored in June. The slate contains both Shiite and Sunni candidates but is largely secular.

Also likely to do well in the vote is the Kurdistan Alliance List, a united slate that includes the two main Kurdish political parties and nine smaller Kurdish parties.

Kurds make up less than 20 percent of the population, but they are expected to vote in large numbers because of a generally stable security situation in the northern part of the country, where they are concentrated.

Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein despite making up less than a quarter of the population, are likely to see an erosion in their political position after the vote. Not only is the security situation tenuous in many Sunni areas, but also, two influential Sunni groups -- the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Association of Muslim Scholars -- are boycotting the elections.

However, interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, is participating, heading a slate called The Iraqis. He said Saturday that he believed a majority of Iraqis would turn out for the vote.

Saturday, insurgents made their presence known with a series of attacks, including a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone that killed two Americans and injured five others.

In Khanaqin, a Kurdish town near the Iranian border, two bombings at a U.S.-Iraqi Joint Coordination Center killed three Iraqi soldiers and five Iraqi civilians. A roadside bombing in western Baghdad killed a U.S. soldier.

Three polling stations and a police station in northern Baghdad were attacked by gunmen, who wounded five Iraqi soldiers and three Iraqi police officers.

U.S. stake

The elections mark a pivotal moment not only for the Iraqi people, but also for President Bush and his international allies who sent in troops to topple Saddam, only to find themselves dealing with a violent insurgency that has largely frustrated their best efforts to quash it.

"The terrorists and those who benefited from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein know that free elections will expose the emptiness of their vision for Iraq. That is why they will stop at nothing to prevent or disrupt this election," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.

"Every Iraqi who casts his or her vote deserves the admiration of the world."

Bush also reiterated the argument he made January 20 in his inaugural address, that a democratic Iraq will make America more secure.

"As hope and freedom spread, the appeal of terror and hate will fade," he said. "There is not a democratic nation in our world that threatens the security of the United States."

Meanwhile, Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries around the world, including the United States, have one last opportunity Sunday to cast votes, as the three-day window for out-of-country voting closes.

Election officials reported Saturday that at least 84,400 people had voted abroad so far, about 30 percent of the 280,300 Iraqi expatriates who registered. Turnout in the United States was about 22 percent after the first day of voting.

CNN's Cal Perry contributed to this report.

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