One day after the election, with Iraq still subjected to tough security measures, millions of ballot papers were being counted in the vote for the first full-term government since Saddam Hussein fell from power in 2003.

In stark contrast to a January poll, the election was marked by minimal violence and high-turnout, including in Sunni Arab areas that had until now largely boycotted the US-led political transition to sovereignty.

"The number of whose who took part in the ballot should be between 10 and 11 million voters, according to our first estimates," said electoral official Farid Ayar.

Eleven million voters would put turnout at just over 70%.

Voting hailed

International monitors said the election had "generally" met international standards despite some procedural issues and hailed the organisers for meeting a "difficult challenge".

Abroad, 320,000 expatriates voted in the election.

"The number who took part in the ballot should be between 10 and 11 million voters, according to our first estimates"

Farid Ayar,
Iraq electoral official

Although final results are not expected for at least two weeks, a Western diplomat said a preliminary estimate could be available in four to five days.

With a massive security operation to guard against attacks, the number of voters, out of an eligible electorate of 15.5 million, appeared to have surpassed turnout in the October referendum and the 30 January elections.

Newspapers across the Arab world hailed Sunni Arab participation as a "turning point" that should grant legitimacy to the new government.

Head of the electoral commission, Ezzeddin Mohammadi, said the organisation had received 178 complaints, which would be examined by electoral officials and independent lawyers.

US troop reduction

George Bush, the US president, said the vote was a "major step forward" in having "a democratic Iraq, a country able to sustain itself and defend itself".

Around 2155 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq since 2003, causing Bush's approval ratings to plunge amid increasing calls for troops to leave.

Security was intense during 
Thursday's vote

Meanwhile the top US commander in Iraq accused Iran of meddling in Iraq's elections, saying it invested heavily in political parties in the south and seeks to influence the formation of a new government.
  
"I don't have hard, smoking gun-type evidence, but the intelligence we have tells us they invested heavily in political parties supportive of Iran in the south," said General George Casey, on Friday.

Casey, who commands US forces in Iraq, said US troops would be drawn down to their pre-election baseline level, which was about 138,000, from the current level of more than 150,000.