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Baghdad braves bombs and bloomer

Baghdad, Jan. 30: Thirty-three deaths, 13 suicide bombers at work and a turnout of 72 per cent ' or is it 60 per cent'

Iraq's poll guardians backtracked this evening on turnout estimates, but millions of Iraqis stayed the course to take part in the country's first multi-party elections in half a century.

Voters, some ululating with joy, others hiding their faces in fear, cast ballots in higher-than-expected numbers.

Samir Hassan, 32, who lost his leg in a car bomb blast last year, said as he waited to vote in Baghdad: 'I would have crawled here if I had to. I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me.'

Despite draconian security measures imposed by Iraq's US-backed interim government, militants launched a string of attacks to try to torpedo the polls.

They struck mainly in Baghdad, rocking the capital with nine suicide blasts in rapid succession. The Iraqi wing of al Qaida, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility. It had declared war on the election, vowing to kill any 'infidel' who voted.

In parts of the Sunni Arab heartland, where the insurgency has been bloodiest, many polling stations were empty. A low Sunni turnout would damage the credibility of the first election since Saddam Hussein was toppled in a US-led invasion in April 2003. Iraq's long-oppressed Shia majority looked poised to take power.

If a jarring note rang out louder than the bombs, it was struck by officials. The election commission withdrew its initial turnout count, saying a previous figure of 72 per cent 'was just an estimate'.

'Turnout figures recently announced represent the enormous and understandable enthusiasm felt in the field on this historic day,' a commission statement said.

'However, these figures are only very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field. It will take some time for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to issue accurate figures on turnout.'

Commission spokesman Farid Ayar said maybe up to eight million Iraqis voted, which would be a little over 60 per cent of registered voters. If the revised estimate stays unchanged, that will still be more than many had expected.

The government had set a target of at least 50 per cent.

With international monitors mostly staying away for fear of kidnapping, it was impossible to assess the fairness of the poll or accuracy of the turnout estimates.

Hailing the election as a 'resounding success', President George W. Bush said: 'The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the centre of the Middle East.'

Written with agency reports

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