Counting underway in Iraqi election

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The voter turnout in Iraq's general elections was 62%, officials say, despite attacks that killed 38 people. Preliminary results are not expected for several days but the turnout figure is down from the 75% who voted in the 2005 general elections. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's State of Law Coalition is widely expected to win the most seats. Ben Gilbert is reporting from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Results from yesterday's Parliamentary elections in Iraq won't be known for several days. After all, about 6,000 candidates competed for more than 300 seats. But the important thing is that the election seemed to have been free and fair. The vote was a test of Iraq's fragile democracy. It'll help determine whether the country can overcome its sectarian divides. It will also help determine whether the U.S. can reduce its troop presence on schedule. General Ray Odierno is the top American military commander in Iraq and he says he's optimistic.

GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: As I look out at today, we think we're on track to be down to 50,000 and change our mission. We obviously have contingencies in place and we'll take a look at that, but there's nothing today that tells us that we don't think the Iraqi's will be able to form this government in a peaceful way and begin to move forward so we are certainly believe that we will be able to go to 50,000 by the first of September.

WERMAN: General Ray Odierno speaking today in Baghdad. In a moment we'll consider what the Iraq elections mean for the Middle East and for Washington. First though, we go to Ben Gilbert in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

BEN GILBERT: An American military convoy drove United Nations and American Embassy officials to Kirkuk's central counting center this morning. But all they found were ballot boxes and just a few workers. The center's deputy, Firaz Jamal, said most of the top election officials weren't there.

FIRAZ JAMAL: We are waiting for them because all the night they were working, so actually they need some rest.

GILBERT: Machine gun fire may also have kept the poll workers up. Celebratory gunfire erupted a few hours after the polls closed. Tracers filled the air at the U.S. Air Force base on the outskirts of Kirkuk. Personnel were told to take shelter due to the danger of falling lead. But the party went on outside the base's tall concrete walls. Yesterday was noisy from the start. In the morning music played from a car near a polling station as men in traditional Kurdish baggy pants, and women wearing green and yellow dresses walked to cast their votes in Kirkuk. Among them was 70-year-old Latif Khooder. This is a very good morning and we are really excited about it because we see the future of Iraq in this election he said. Unlike the days of Saddam Hussein, several Iraqi's took pride in not telling me how they voted, including 28-year-old Shlair Ibrahim.

INTERPRETER: I don't want to answer you. I voted for whoever I wanted.

GILBERT: U.S. and international election observers say the vote pretty much went smoothly and was well organized. They say that so far there have been no game-changing allegations of fraud. Mark Hambley monitored the elections as part of a delegation from the Next Century Foundation. Hambley says the vote was a positive step for Iraqis.

MARK HAMBLEY: They're masters of their own fate and that's something they can be at least proud of despite some difficulties we had in the past. The loss of life on both sides has been huge, but the potential here is greater and I think that these elections can turn into a government that's a little more effective. Move ahead on some of these difficulties and be better for everybody.

GILBERT: But Iraq is still not safe. At least 30 people died in mortar and grenade attacks in Baghdad yesterday despite the tight security. But all of Iraq's major religious groups did take part in this election for the first time. That includes Sunni Arabs. Many Sunni's boycotted the vote in 2005. President Barack Obama said he has great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence and who exercised their right to vote. Mr. Obama has set a September deadline for all combat troops to be out of Iraq. Whether more troops can be withdrawn after that will depend on the formation of Iraq's next government. That could take a while. No single party is expected to win a majority in Parliament and negotiations among the parties are likely to be contentious. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert in Kirkuk, Northern Iraq.

WERMAN: You can see Ben Gilbert's photos of the vote in Kirkuk at the world dot org.