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Iraq Transition

Polls open in historic Iraqi election

Sunnis, other minorities likely to make gains in parliament

Programming Note: CNN's Anderson Cooper will report live from Iraq this week on the country's historic election. His reports will air at 10 p.m. ET.

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Transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari casts his ballot soon after the polls opened Thursday.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqis began casting ballots in a historic election Thursday, capping off a rocky year by voting for a full four-year parliament.

The election is Iraqis' third of the year. Earlier they chose a transitional government and approved a constitution.

Violence was reported almost as soon as the polls opened Thursday. A blast believed caused by a roadside bomb was reported in Ramadi, and a suspected mortar round exploded in Baghdad.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

The profundity of Thursday's vote did not escape even teenagers engaged in a friendly soccer match in Sunni-dominated Aadhamiya.

They stopped their game Wednesday to voice support for former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim, Reuters reported.

"Ayad Allawi. Ayad Allawi. Ayad Allawi. We want Allawi," Reuters quoted Ahmed Khaled as saying. "He is a hero, and I am a wrestling champion."

The election will last from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday (11 p.m. Wednesday to 9 a.m. Thursday ET), but final results probably won't be available until the end of December at the earliest.

As many as 10 million people were expected to go to the polls, despite the possibility of violence. They will choose a Council of Representatives, a 275-member body that will shape the policies of Iraq in the country's post-Saddam Hussein era.

Some members of the military seemed to be embracing the election, Reuters reported, even disagreeing with their commander on the choice for prime minister. (Watch CNN's Amanpour on campaigning in Iraq -- 3:32)

"It's no problem. This is a democracy," the commander, Muhammed Rashid, told Reuters. Rashid is an Allawi supporter, but his troops expressed support for transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called on his nation Wednesday to make election day "a national celebration and an historic day for national unity and a victory over terrorism." (A gallery of the Iraqi elections)

Election eve was marred by violence when a mob attacked the Nasiriya office of Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party, according to the governor of Thiqar province, south of Baghdad.

No one from the party was hurt, and soldiers and police eventually took control of the situation, police said.

Violence and security concerns kept some polling sites from opening Thursday in Anbar province, said Abdul Hussein al-Hindawi of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

"In some areas, there are some military operations, and these elections are canceled in these areas," he said, without specifying the locations. (Watch as some problems reported before the polls open -- 1:37)

In other places, difficult preparations had to be made for the elections, and the U.S. military said Tuesday that it had conducted 54 close air-support missions to establish a "secure environment" in areas like Baghdad and Balad. (A gallery of Iraq awaiting election day)

In addition to the violence, fraud became a concern. The U.S. military was investigating a truck detained Tuesday near the Iranian border that was loaded with thousands of suspected fake ballots.

A deputy interior minister in charge of border control, Lt. Gen. Ahmed al-Khafaji, said the reports were false. (Watch report on alleged Iran connection -- 1:37)

Many differences

There are many differences between the parliament being chosen Thursday and the transitional government elected in January.

Most notably, smaller entities have a better chance because representation will be allocated among Iraq's 18 provinces -- much like how the U.S. House of Representatives is divided -- with the most populous states having the largest contingents. (Find out how system works)

In a speech Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, President Bush said Thursday's elections would advance American interests and those of Iraq.

"We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom," Bush said. "Iraqis will go to the polls to choose a government that will be the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world.

"Yet we need to remember that these elections are also a vital part of a broader strategy in protecting the American people against the threat of terrorism." (Transcript)

In a speech Monday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bush predicted greater participation by Sunni Arabs, a religious minority that wielded great power during Hussein's reign.

The electoral structure will give Sunni Arabs a boost because they are sure to win some seats in provinces where they make up most or much of the population. (Watch as soldiers vote early so they can patrol during elections -- 2:27)

When most Sunnis boycotted January's elections, they gained only a handful of seats in the transitional government.

Sunnis should gain the nine seats in Anbar province and eight seats in Salaheddin. They could win more seats in other ethnically mixed areas -- such as Baghdad, Nineveh, Diyala, Tameem and Babil -- and under a formula that allots 45 seats based on the percentage of the national and overseas vote that each political party snares.

Still, Shiite Arabs and Kurds are expected to continue to dominate the parliament, with analysts forecasting the ruling Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and its Kurdish allies to win the most votes. (Read about each coalition)

The coalition list of Allawi and supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could gain enough votes to be power brokers, Western diplomats say.

Christians, Turkmens, Shiite Kurds, communists and other political parties all have a better shot of tasting and gaining power, observers say.

CNN's Kevin Flower, Aneesh Raman, Arwa Damo, Joe Sterling and Mohammed Tawfeeq to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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