Despite some shelling in central Baghdad as polls opened on time at 7 a.m., 10 million Iraqis are expected to vote in Thursday's (December 15) historic election to choose the country's new parliament. Amid high security at the more than 33,000 polling stations, Iraqis from the bitterly divided Sunni and Shiite populations participated in the country's first free parliamentary elections in more than 50 years.

Choosing from a slate of 7,648 candidates vying for 275 seats in the new National Assembly, Iraqi leaders predicted that the vote would likely be split almost 50/50 between a group of secular Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and more hard-line Islamist Shiite parties, according to a New York Times report. The third vote since the U.S. invaded the country and deposed dictator Saddam Hussein could determine whether Iraq becomes a more religious state and whether the patchwork of religious and ethnic groups can work together to unify the country and overcome bitter divisions.

The White House is hoping that the elections will mark a turning point in the transition to democracy in Iraq and deal a blow to the insurgency, setting the stage for the beginning of a slow withdrawal of American troops (see "Iraqi Leaders Request Timetable For U.S. Withdrawal").

After the Sunni minority largely sat out of January's constitutional assembly elections, there is also hope that the opportunity to have a voice in the country's future will help ease some of the divisions between the Sunnis and the Shiites and Kurds, possibly helping to defeat the Sunni-led insurgency that has brought daily violence to the region.

Even with a heavy presence of police, security forces and U.S. troops patrolling the major cities and a three-day ban on traffic and sealed borders to increase security, the day was not without its share of bloodshed. A mortar struck in the middle of the Green Zone in Baghdad near the American embassy, a roadside bomb struck in Ramadi and a bomb killed a hospital guard near a polling station in Mosul where a mortar landed near another polling station across town.

Despite the violence, The Washington Post reported that lines formed before polling stations opened in Ramadi. "Even though there were many explosions last night and even if there are more now or on my way to the polling center, I will come and vote," Mizhar Abud Salman told the Post as he headed to a schoolhouse polling center in Saddam Hussein's home region of Tikrit.

"Ballot boxes are a victory of democracy over dictatorship," Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari told reporters as he cast his vote. "The real triumph is that people are casting ballots — whoever they choose — and that they've chosen voting over bombs."

Voters had plenty of candidates to choose from, spread across 231 parties and coalitions, which is why experts predict that official vote tabulation could take a week or even a month to complete. The legislators will serve a four-year term and will eventually approve a new president and prime minister.

According to The New York Times, officials were expecting a 62 percent voter turnout, which would best the 58 percent turnout for January's elections for an interim government, which were largely boycotted by the Sunni Arab minority.

The Shiite coalition, led by clerics, is expected to get the largest number of votes, but not enough to get the amount of seats needed to help Adel Abdul Mahdi — the group's probable nominee for prime minister — form a government. The Shiite coalition won a slim majority in the January elections, but the Times reported that the expected heavy participation of Sunnis makes it unlikely that the Shiite bloc will capture a majority this time.

If elected, the Shiites are expected to give Iraq an Islamic bent, as evidenced by parties in control in Southern Iraq who have imposed strict limits on such things as women's dress and the sale of alcohol. Some American officials are wary of a Shiite-dominated government because of Shiite leaders' close ties to the government of Iran, part of what President Bush has referred to as the "axis of evil."

The United States is backing a coalition led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who has drawn together a group of Sunnis and who hopes to also bring in two major Kurdish parties. Even if he is able to hold his coalition together, Allawi is not expected to be able to get an absolute majority in the current election.

In addition to the voting in Iraq, more than 300,000 expatriate Iraqis in the U.S. (in such strongholds as Dearborn, Michigan) cast ballots this week, joining expats from 15 other countries including Jordan, Germany, England, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Austria.