WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama praised Iraqis who turned out to vote in national elections Sunday despite "acts of violence" to discourage participation.
Insurgent attacks on polling stations killed at least 31 people even with extraordinary security measures in place, including closure of the country's borders and the Baghdad international airport.
The vote was Iraq's second national election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. A big turnout and limited violence were seen as key to the planned withdrawal of American combat forces by Aug. 31.
U.S. officials have said they remain on track to complete that drawdown and the subsequent pullout of the remaining 50,000 American troops at the end of next year. There are now just under 100,000 American forces in the country, the smallest number since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"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," Obama said in a statement. "Their participation demonstrates that the Iraqi people have chosen to shape their future through the political process. "
American officials have said they expect it will take months for the new parliament - once the vote outcome is known - to select the next prime minister who will then choose the new government. The White House has acknowledged the possibility of continuing violence during that period.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw surprisingly little violence associated with the elections and that security improvements have forced al Qaida-linked militants to change tactics. Gates told reporters traveling with him that he received a briefing from the top U.S. general in Iraq, Ray Odierno.
"All in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us," Gates said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Iraqis' participation in the electoral process represented "no better rebuke to the violent extremists who seek to derail Iraq's progress." The U.S. salutes "the determination of the Iraqi people to reaffirm their commitment to democracy and to chart their own future free of fear and intimidation."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was fighting for his political future with challenges from a coalition of mainly Shiite religious groups on one side and a secular alliance combining Shiites and Sunnis on the other.
The election was seen as a crossroads where Iraq will decide whether to adhere to politics along the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines or move away from the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have emerged since the fall of Saddam's iron-fisted, Sunni-minority rule.
Al-Maliki, who has built his reputation as the man who restored order to the country, faced strong challenges from his former Shiite allies, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and a party headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
He also was standing against a secular alliance led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite, who has teamed up with a number of Sunnis in a bid to claim the government.