Afghans chose a legislature for the first time in decades yesterday, embracing their newly recovered democratic rights and braving threats of Taliban attacks to cast votes in schools, tents and mosques.
Reports of violence came in from around Afghanistan as it sought to claw its way back from more than a quarter-century of conflict, but there were no immediate signs of the spectacular attack that officials had feared from Taliban militants who vowed to disrupt the vote.
Violence in the two days leading up to the vote left at least 22 people dead, including a French commando killed when his vehicle struck a mine. Early yesterday, fierce fighting in an eastern Afghanistan left three militants and two policemen dead and two US troops wounded, officials said.
But yesterday was mostly about getting out to vote and making a difference.
"We are making history," President Hamid Karzai said as he cast his ballot. "It's the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."
Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote for the national legislature and provincial assemblies at more than 6,000 polling stations, guarded by some 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops.
Officials predicted a massive turnout despite a Taliban call for a boycott. By mid-afternoon, many polling centers reported fewer voters than expected though officials said it was too early to estimate overall turnout.
Abdul Makin, an election organizer in Kabul, said turnout appeared lower than in last October's presidential election.
For those who did vote, enthusiasm ran high.
"Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan," said Ali Safar, 62, standing in line to vote in Kabul. "We want dignity, we want stability and peace."
The vote was seen as the last formal step toward democracy on a path set out after a US-led force drove the Taliban from power in 2001, when they refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Many people hoped the legislative polls would marginalize the insurgents and end a spiral of violence that started in 1979 when Soviet troops invaded, before a devastating civil war and the oppressive rule of the hard-line Taliban.
The Taliban said they would not attack civilians heading to polls but warned them to stay away from areas where militants might attack security forces and foreign troops.