Election day was largely free of violence as millions of Iraqis voted in provincial polls that appear to have bolstered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power in the south and weakened the Kurds' dominance in the north.
In parts of Iraq the mood was festive and hopeful. In Baghdad, children played soccer in streets free of cars as driving was mostly banned. Families wore their best clothes to walk to polls. Elsewhere, voting seemed oddly routine. The first postinvasion nationwide vote in 2005 – marred by fighting, threats, and boycotts – was considered by many as a democratic test run; Saturday's vote is seen as the real thing.
"This will determine the direction Iraq goes in – now and in the future," says school principal Abbas Zaki, who woke at dawn to run a polling station in the northwestern city of Sinjar. "We don't want to talk anymore about this person against that person."
But while election monitors hailed a smooth vote, Iraqi officials reported that turnout was 51 percent – lower than expected, particularly in Baghdad, where only 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
Official results are expected midweek. But early returns indicated that Shiite candidates affiliated with Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party did well in the south, while in the north, Sunni Arab voters, many participating for the first time, were believed to have voted in significant numbers for al-Hadba candidates, a new party that has pledged to challenge Kurdish expansion.
The expected popularity of the Dawa Party is seen as a boost for Maliki ahead of a national election set for the end of this year. The disputed Kirkuk region and the three semiautonomous Kurdish provinces were excluded from the provincial elections.
Five political candidates were assassinated in the run-up to the elections. But on voting day, there was so little violence that the vehicle ban, which outside the major cities seemed widely ignored, was lifted to allow more voters to get to the polls. In one of the only incidents of violence, US soldiers shot two off-duty Iraqi policemen in a firefight near Mosul.
To keep the election safe, Iraq sealed its borders, shut down its airports, and deployed every available soldier and policeman around polling stations in the 14 of 18 provinces that voted Saturday.
In Baghdad, as they did elsewhere in Iraq, voters proudly displayed purple ink-stained index fingers – proof that they had cast their ballots.
Many say they have high expectations for Iraq's newly elected politicians.
"I have a college degree, but there are no job opportunities because the security situation was out of control. This election will offer me different opportunities," says Uday Samir, who set aside his language degree in Turkish to be part of a poorly paid neighborhood watch group in the Athamiya neighborhood of Baghdad.
The run-down schools across the country that served as most of the more than 6,000 polling sites provided evidence of why six years into the war, Iraqis are demanding governments who can deliver services.
In the northwestern Iraqi city of Sinjar, Bassima Jassim Sharif sat at a battered desk, waiting to register voters just after the polls opened Saturday. With no electricity, a battery-operated lamp cut through the early morning darkness.
"I tried to vote in 2005, but they ran out of ballots," says Ms. Sharif, a kindergarten headmistress who said it was particularly important for women to vote.
"You see this? It isn't fit for animals," says Abbas Zaki, the polling center supervisor and headmaster at another over-crowded school in the area, where more than 1,000 students study in two shifts. At most of the schools, broken windows were taped over with cardboard. In the winter, children study with no heat under leaking roofs.
The area, in an arc of territory under Iraqi government control but which the Kurds claim as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, has a large proportion of Yazidis, an ancient religious community based in northern Iraq who are considered Kurds by the Kurdish parties who court their votes.
At one polling site, dozens of Yazidi women, their hair covered in purple or white head scarves, stood in line across the street from a giant Kurdish flag to enter a brightly colored nylon tent to be searched.
The Yazidis themselves, whose villages were widely destroyed under Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds, are split over whether they consider themselves Kurdish.
"The Kurds are very good to us – they help us with salaries, they provide services," says Khalaf Khatha Khalaf, waiting to vote for the first time.
At several other polling sites visited by United Nations and US State Department monitors, there were few voters. In Tel al-Ghassab, an Arab town near Sinjar, the polling center seemed to have closed for lunch as election workers stopped to eat lamb and rice from aluminum platters. An Iraqi soldier with a rocket-propelled grenade stood outside near a sign advising voters that no smoking or cellphones were allowed.
The election was observed by hundreds of foreign monitors. Stefan de Mistura, the UN special envoy here, says that while there were minor problems, voting across the country generally proceeded smoothly and effectively.
"This is a good day for Iraq's democracy," he says.
The effects are still to be determined, but many Iraqis who did vote Saturday agreed. "It's like a flower," said school principal Adris Murad Ali, holding up his purple ink-stained finger.
• Correspondent Tom A. Peter contributed reporting from Baghdad.