Many hope the poll will restore security to a conflict-wracked nation.
Despite blanket security, one person was killed and several wounded in sporadic attacks across the country, including a huge blast was heard just after voting began near Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.
“The most important thing is for Iraqis to express themselves with ballots, not blasts,” said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who voted inside the Green Zone.
The strict security measures brought Iraq to a halt, with many people pouring onto the streets to walk to polling stations, with vehicles banned to curb potential suicide attacks.
About 15.5 million Iraqis are registered to vote for a 275-member parliament, with leading candidates pledging to restore stability and pave the way for an exit of foreign troops.
It is the third vote this year, and marks a new start for the country after the US-led invasion in March 2003, two transitional governments and a new constitution.
“The next parliament will represent all Iraqis, be they Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, Turkmen or Christian,” said Vice President Abdel Abdel Mehdi, tipped by
many as the next prime minister.
“We will strike a blow not only against terrorism but also against corruption and under-development.”
But even before polls opened, Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to ruin the political process with a new campaign of violence.
Incoming MPs, elected to four-year terms, will approve a new government tasked with securing democracy to eventually allow around 180,000 US-led forces to withdraw.
In 15 countries from Australia to Europe, North America and the Middle East, 80,000 expatriates have already casti ballots in a three-day process that began on Tuesday, following voting in Iraqi hospitals and prisons on Monday.
But a purported al-Qaeda statement on the Internet said a “blessed conquest” had been launched to “shake up the bastions of non-believers and apostates and ruin the ‘democratic’ wedding of heresy and immorality”.
The group, blamed for some of the worst attacks in Iraq, said it would
focus on Baghdad, northern Mosul and Sunni-dominated provinces.
Despite the rampant insecurity in Iraq, the US leader vowed that Iraq’s new democracy will serve as a model for the region.
The Pentagon has said that 2,150 US troops have been killed since the 2003 US-led invasion in Iraq.
“Freedom in Iraq will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran,” Mr Bush said, in a fourth and final speech aimed at presenting his case for the US role in Iraq ahead of the historic election.
In Iraq, President Jalal Talabani urged Iraqis to make Thursday a day of “national unity” and “a triumph over terrorism”.
Iraqi and US officials hope the first full-term legislature since a 2003
invasion to oust Saddam Hussein will draw disaffected Sunni Arabs back into politics and undermine support for the insurgency.
Sunnis boycotted a January poll but are expected to turn out in force to strengthen their political power as a safeguard against growing federalism and a religious Shi’ite government.
Virtually all of Iraq’s 190,000-strong security forces have been mobilised, with US-led troops to provide perimeter security for polling stations.
Airports were closed, and land borders and boundaries between Iraq’s 18 provinces sealed.
Until Saturday, civilians were banned from carrying weapons and a curfew was imposed from 10pm until 6am local time.
After nightfall, one civilian was killed and two wounded in a bomb explosion in central Baghdad, the interior ministry said.
In Mosul, a mixed Arab and Kurdish city, two policemen died in a bomb attack near a polling station, and insurgents attacked another station with explosives near the flashpoint city of Fallujah.
No casualties were reported however, and the US military said the station would open on Thursday.
Anger at Al-Jazeera
In the largely peaceable south, comments deemed defamatory to revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani broadcast on Al-Jazeera television infuriated religious Shi’ites, who torched the offices of secular candidate Iyad Allawi and his communist allies in Nasiriyah.
In a debate aired on Al-Jazeera late on Tuesday, London-based Iraqi writer Fadel al-Rubaye said Shi’ite religious leaders had “favored the entry of American troops in Iraq” and had urged Iraqis not to resist the occupation.
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, posters showing Al-Qaeda’s alleged frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, dressed as a blood-red Dark Ages monster, glared near Iraqi troops already guarding one polling station.
Army Lieutenant Mohammed al-Hilali, whose leg was smashed by a bullet in August, ignored the disability to be with his men outside a polling station ahead of the vote, leaning on wooden crutches.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to miss this historic moment… I want a strong government that doesn’t weaken against anyone.”