KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power.
Amid tight security, men in traditional tunics and loose trousers, and women clad in the all-encompassing burqas arrived at polling centers more than an hour before they opened in Kabul and elsewhere.
Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani marked his ballot live on television then urged all Afghans to vote as he launched the nationwide elections for a new president and provincial councils.
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
"I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote," she said. "I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election."
The militants have vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centers and election workers, and recent high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul are clearly designed to show they are perfectly capable of doing just that.
On Friday, a veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and an AP reporter was wounded when an Afghan policeman opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
If the turnout is high and the Afghans are able to hold a successful election, that could undermine the Taliban's appeal by showing democracy can indeed work.
With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, Afghans will choose a new president from a field of eight candidates, with three of them widely considered the main contenders. As international combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of the few successes in Karzai's tenure.
Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces fanned out on Saturday to protect polling stations and voters. On Friday evening, mobile phone messaging services stopped working in the capital, Kabul, in what appeared to be a security measure by authorities to prevent militants from using messages for attacks.
Three men are considered top contenders in the race - a major shift from past elections dominated by Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. That has presented Afghans with their first presidential vote in which the outcome is uncertain.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West between the front-runners - Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014 - which Karzai has refused to do. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.
The candidates have stumped for votes with near-daily debates and rallies across the Texas-sized country, a far greater level of campaigning than in the past, when certain blocs of voters were largely taken for granted in a patronage system. They also have named running mates including warlords, leaders from rival ethnic groups and in some cases, women. None is expected to get a majority needed to secure a win outright, so a runoff between the top two vote getters is widely expected.
"The election excitement is being felt all over the place," said Aimal Jan Ghafoori, who worked at a voter registration center in the southern city of Kandahar. "It's really good to see this change. I hope this change helps in changing the fate of our country soon enough."
He said barely three dozen people showed up to register each day in 2009, when massive vote-rigging marred Karzai's re-election, while as many as 300 lined up daily to beat Tuesday's deadline to register for this year's elections for president and provincial councils.
Kabul has experienced several attacks over the past few weeks, but long lines at polling stations in the Afghan capital suggested that voters were not being scared away.
In Friday's attack in Khost, a unit commander named Naqibullah walked up to the car with the AP photographer and reporter, yelled "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - and opened fire on them in the back seat with his AK-47.
Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, while Kathy Gannon, an AP correspondent who for many years was the news organization's Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot twice and later underwent surgery. She was reported as being in stable condition.
Security forces have been on high alert since a suicide bomber struck the entrance of the heavily fortified Interior Ministry in Kabul on Wednesday, killing six policemen. Police are searching cars and checking ID cards at checkpoints throughout the city.
The candidates also have expressed concern about fraud in the balloting, particularly government interference.
International officials say a level of fraud is to be expected but note that Afghan electoral officials have learned from the past and implemented strict protocols to minimize it. That includes bar codes on the ballot boxes being delivered to nearly 6,500 polling centers in all 34 provinces and plans to tally the results immediately after the vote closes and post a copy of the results at each center.
Graeme Smith, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said all signs pointed to a heavy turnout despite fears of violence, in part because voters actually feel like they have a choice.
"The indications are that people are going to vote, at the very least tribes and local strongmen are going to be able to muster votes," he said. "The fact that it's a horse race might bring out the vote."