Despite a long delay, disputes over candidates’ qualifications, arrests and assassinations, the country’s main political blocs competed fiercely at the ballot box to win an election that remained too close to call, something rare in a region dominated by authoritarian governments.
Only moments before the polls opened, four bombs exploded in Baghdad, reverberating across the city. It was not immediately clear how much damage they caused.
By all accounts, no single party or coalition was expected to win an outright majority, setting the stage for a period of turmoil — months, not weeks, politicians here say — as parties try to cobble together the majority of seats in the country’s new 325-member Parliament to select a new prime minister.
The incumbent, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite who has refashioned himself as a nationalist leader over the last four years, with mixed results, faced formidable challenges from a bloc of Shiite parties once allied with him and from another led by a former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi.
For the first time, the Sunni minority that under Mr. Hussein dominated Iraqi politics is expected to participate in force, potentially reshaping the country’s political landscape. The election could also begin to resolve — or worsen — the delicate questions of political control in disputed regions like Kirkuk and Nineveh, where Arab and Kurdish aspirations conflict.
The competition among the main Shiite parties, divided this time, could be decisive. Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose followers fought against the American military and Mr. Maliki’s government, urged Iraqi Shiites to vote. “Participation in the election is a sort of political resistance,” he said in remarks broadcast on television in Iran, where he is said to be studying to become an ayatollah.
Voting began in an atmosphere that was at once hopeful and fearful. A series of attacks in the past week appeared intended to disrupt the election, as the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq repeatedly vowed to do, denouncing the election as antithetical to their extremist vision of Islam.
The threats — circulated in leaflets in Diyala and Anbar — were a throwback to the volatile elections of 2005, when suspicion and insurgency kept people away from the polls, especially Sunnis.
“Iraq’s enemies are going to try and exploit this change to attack the Iraqi people,” the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, said Saturday, even as new attacks struck in Baghdad, in Musayyib to the south and in the Shiite holy city Najaf, killing at least four and wounding dozens more.
Those followed a series of attacks on Thursday near polling stations in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala that killed at least 12 people and wounded scores. The most serious of those involved a car bomb that exploded in a parking lot near the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
A shop owner in Najaf, Hussein Ali, worried that the latest bombings exposed the shortcomings of the security forces, who failed to detect the explosives on Saturday despite already heightened security around the shrine. “I won’t go to vote because I am afraid for myself and my family,” he said.
Iraq’s security forces, however, are far stronger than they were when the last parliamentary elections were held in 2005, and they saturated cities and towns across the country, closing internal borders and imposing a curfew on vehicles, even bicycles, that left the streets largely deserted.
“We are in a battle now, and our enemies will use whatever means they can to try and keep the Iraqi people from voting,” General Atta said. “We need to expect the worst in order to be prepared for it.”
Unlike any of Iraq’s elections and referendums before — for a Provisional Assembly, for a Parliament, for a Constitution and provincial assemblies — Iraqis controlled the streets and borders. The American military, already largely withdrawn from the cities, provided assistance and planning but remained behind the scenes.
Something new also emerged, though. A tried and tested reliance on violence turned into defiance. Even in the aftermath of the latest of an untold number of attacks, other voters in Najaf sounded determined, like the country itself, to carrying on with the vote regardless of efforts to derail it.
Abed al-Nabi Mahmoud, a taxi driver, described the attacks that still scar Iraq as “old and inactive.”
“We will vote and win,” he said as if addressing those who carry out the attacks, “and you will lose.”
In Falluja, a city in Anbar devastated by American assaults in 2004, then isolated in a cauldron of bloodshed when Al Qaeda ran rampant, a similar determination reflected an important shift in the mood of Sunnis.
After boycotting the last parliamentary elections in 2005, they were left disproportionately underrepresented in Parliament, fueling anger and, many argue, the insurgency that plunged the country into civil war. Now, despite a murky process to disqualify prominent Sunni candidates, the Sunnis who once resisted the American-sponsored government of Mr. Maliki vowed to make their voices heard.
“This is our chance,” one resident in Falluja, Amman Khudeir, said ahead of the vote on Saturday. “If we don’t seize it now, we’ll lose it forever.”