Millions of Iraqis took to the polls on Saturday in a crucial test for a nation struggling to emerge from years of sectarian strife as voting for provincial councils ended without a single major attack reported anywhere in the country.
"No security breaches took place during the election. Things went as we planned and as we hoped," Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askary said.
Only a few incidents of violence marred what was otherwise a peaceful vote which wrapped up an hour later than planned.
Mortar rounds landed in former dictator Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit but no one was hurt, and Iraqi troops shot one person dead and wounded another after a quarrel in Baghdad's Sadr City area.
Iraqi forces are determined to show they can keep security in the country as U.S. troops begin to withdraw almost six years after the invasion to overthrow Saddam.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is looking to use the election to build his own power base in the provinces before national polls later this year. Sunni Arab groups who boycotted the last provincial polls are hoping to win a share of local power.
The last election took place amid an al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgency and was followed by a surge in sectarian slaughter between once dominant Sunni Arabs and majority Shiite Muslims.
Results are expected to start rolling in on Tuesday
15 million registered to vote
Just fewer than 15 million of Iraq's 28 million people registered to vote for provincial councils that select powerful regional governors. Three Kurdish provinces are to vote separately and the election in oil-rich, disputed Kirkuk has been put off because no one could agree on election rules.
"My suffering has pushed me to vote," said electoral worker Asad Wahayab in the southern oil city of Basra, who added that after the election he would go back to being unemployed. "We have suffered a lot and this is our chance to vote for change."
Around 14,400 candidates are competing for 440 council seats in exuberant campaigning that has been made possible by a sharp drop in violence over the past 18 months.
"Obviously the president will watch the results, and believes that the provincial elections this weekend mark another significant milestone in Iraq's democratic development," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday.
State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington observers from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad as well as reconstruction teams composed of U.S. civilians will help monitor the elections.
"Our hopes are that basically the Iraqis have a free, fair, transparent election, free of violence," Wood told reporters.
The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission is organizing the elections, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting.
Layers of campaign posters decorate the blast walls that divide Iraqi neighborhoods, and balloons bearing political messages compete in the skies with airships used by U.S. forces to spot mortar or rocket attacks by militants.
Thousands of Iraqi police and troops guarded the polling centers. Cars were banned from cities to counter car bombs, airports and borders were shut and voters were being frisked for explosives-laden suicide vests and scanned for bomb residue.
"We think one, two or three incidents may happen. We expect it. But this country is a newly born democracy. It's beyond expectation that this won't happen," he said.
The 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq had patrols on the streets and helicopters in the sky but mostly kept a low profile.
"I can't express exactly how I feel," said voter Mohammad Ogla as he arrived at a voting station at a school in Baghdad's Karrada district. "(But) I believe my vote will make a change."
"I hope that the results will lead to new provincial councils that work for the interests of citizens," said Hashem Karim, a voter waiting in a queue at a polling station in Nasiriyah, 375 kilometers (230 miles) south of the Iraqi capital.
Five candidates have been assassinated in the run-up to the election, three of them on Thursday. But car and suicide bomb attacks, many attributed to remnants of al Qaeda, have been far fewer than before the last vote in 2005.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf said it was unrealistic to expect a perfectly violence-free day.
A U.S. armored column was seen weaving down a Baghdad street between children and rocks placed in the road as makeshift soccer goals.
The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at former U.S. president George W. Bush in Baghdad has voted in secret from his prison cell in the country's provincial election, a court official said.
"Muntazer al-Zaidi voted on Jan. 28," an official with the Central Criminal Court of Iraq told AFP.
"Nobody was allowed to ask him whom he would vote for so it would not be considered as a way of trying to influence his choice."
The journalist, 29, for the Al-Baghdadia television faces charges of "aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit." If convicted he faces up to 15 years in jail.