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Polling stations reported a strong turnout of voters on Sunday despite 38 deaths across the country and a security presence which included 200,000 police and soldiers in the capital alone.

Soldiers frisked visitors for weapons and explosives at polling stations in Baghdad as many as four times before they were allowed to enter through lines of barbed wire.

Baghdad was hit by 70 mortar rounds, while the biggest attack at a building in the north of the city killed 25.

Reports said a woman entered the building, and detonated a suicide vest, while others blamed a mortar round.

Al-Qaeda warned it was imposing a “curfew” and that anyone who cast a ballot risked “God’s wrath and the Mujahideen’s weapons”.

But voters from across the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide said the level of violence was far lower than in the last general election, in 2005.

“We are Iraqis. We have had it much worse than this,” said Kamal Fadil, in charge of a polling station in Salhiya, in central Baghdad, to the backdrop of explosions in either direction.

“I care more about changing the country than about this intimidation,” said Mahir Jamil, 49, outside a station in the al-Mansur neighbourhood, a few yards from where a mortar had landed shortly before.

Once mixed, al-Mansur is now almost entirely Sunni following a wave of ethnic cleansing led by al-Qaeda fighters, the evidence of which is still visible in the walls pock-marked by bullets.

The incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki, is thought the most likely winner, though there are few polls and no-one expects any of the four principal blocks to win a clear-cut victory.

Mr Maliki leads the mainly Shia State of Law coalition.

Once a member of the Islamist Dawa movement who sought refuge from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iran, Mr Maliki has protrayed himself as a national leader and claimed credit for falling violence.

It is a message designed to appeal to voters who have suffered decades of loss. “We are exhausted, we are crying blood,” said Harbiya Mohammed, a Shia woman in her sixties from Baya’a in west Baghdad, devoutly covered in full chador.

Two of her sons had been “martyred”, she said – one in the war with Iran in the 1980s, and one killed by a Sunni kidnap gang. Her son-in-law had also been murdered.

President Barack Obama last night congratulated voters.

“I have great respect for the millions of Iraqis who refused to be deterred by acts of violence, and who exercised their right to vote today,” Mr Obama said. “Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process.”

World leaders echoed his praise of Iraqi resiliance after six years of continual violence.

Western diplomats applauded the conduct of the campaign, with television stations devoting hours to debates and interviews with candidates and the streets plastered with posters.

One diplomat said it was a mistake to assume the worst would happen. “In the last three years, the pessimists have always been proved wrong,” he said. “In a week’s time, there is a good chance we will have taken a big step forward.”

Rival contenders for power could yet cry foul. The anti-sectarian opposition leader Ayad Allawi claims that he lost the last election because of ballot stuffing and vote rigging.

Another factor muddying the outcome is the mixed fortunes of the third main contender – an alliance of Shia parties grouping that comprised Islamists with strong ties to Iran and the fiercely anti-American Sadrists, whose Mahdi militia have fought vicious sectarian and anti-western battles.

The campaign drew a diverse range of candidates. The most attention-grabbing have been those of the many women candidates, in many cases unveiled. One prompted an onlooker to joke that he knew the candidate and she was ten years older when the picture was taken. He said: “See – these politicians are already lying to us.”

A provisional result is due to be declared by the end of the week, but the haggling to form a coalition is likely to last until at least the summer. telegraph

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