KABUL - Millions of Afghans went to the polls Thursday, defying Taliban threats of violence and sporadic attacks across the country to choose a president in the midst of a worsening war.
Two Taliban insurgents were killed in a gunbattle in the capital and rockets fell on several towns, mainly in the south and east. But the United Nations said it was cautiously optimistic about the scale of the turnout, and that dire warnings of unrest disrupting the vote had proved unfounded.
Despite some initial attacks in the early morning, voters have demonstrated their determination to participate, said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Kabul. As the afternoon has proceeded, we have seen less attacks, we have seen the situation settle.
He said reports from the field suggested robust turnout in the north and east, including among women. While turnout was slow in the morning in the more violent south, some people appeared to be voting late as attacks tapered off.
Polls were scheduled to close at 4:00 p.m. (1130 GMT) but were kept open an extra hour.
Voting has been extended across the country because of the number of voters, said a spokeswoman for the Independent Election Commission.
At a polling station at the Abu Fazl mosque in central Kabul, officials initially closed the doors but then reopened them.
In southern Kandahar, which took the brunt of Taliban attacks Thursday, a Reuters correspondent saw queues of voters at the end of the polling day after a tentative start in the morning.
President Hamid Karzai cast his ballot under tight security at a high school near his presidential palace in Kabul. He told reporters it would be in the nation's interest if the election was decided in a single round.
He faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Polls suggest Karzai may not get enough votes to avoid a second round run-off, likely in October. Preliminary results are not expected for at least two weeks.
The election is also a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.
Obama's envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in Kabul and said the voting he'd seen was open and honest. So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong, Holbrooke said.
As he spoke, two Taliban fighters were engaged in a shootout with Afghan forces in the capital. Abdullah Uruzgani, a police battalion commander, told Reuters the two were later killed. A Reuters team was allowed inside to film their bodies.
Attacks increased in the run-up to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and a building siege inside the normally secure capital in the past week.
In a series of statements before the election, Taliban fighters claimed they had infiltrated the capital with 20 suicide bombers and would close all the country's roads.
Concern over turnout has especially focused on southern areas, the Taliban's stronghold and also the core of Karzai's support. The president's half brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, provincial council chief in the southern province of Kandahar, told Reuters people turned out briskly in spite of threats.
A rocket landed close to my house, killing a little boy and injuring his mother seriously, he said by telephone. But despite all these warnings, people don't listen to the Taliban. Kandahar people are used to war.
Bill Gallery, senior program director for Democracy International, a group monitoring the poll, said some of its observers in the south were surprised at how many people were turning out. It exceeded their expectations, although it was too early to draw full conclusions about participation.
Many Afghans said attacks would not keep them from voting.
The Afghan people are used to living under the worst circumstances of insecurity and fighting, why should they be afraid to come out and vote? said Sayed Mustafa, a Kabul student, showing an ink-stained finger that proved he had voted.
In northern Baghlan province, Taliban guerrillas attacked a police post, killing a district police chief.
Rockets hit the cities of Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Ghazni and Kunduz, where two election observers were wounded at a polling station. In the eastern city of Gardez, a police official said two suicide bombers on motorcycles blew themselves up but caused no casualties.
More than 30,000 U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the size of the international force above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.
A new poll in the Washington Post found 51 percent of Americans believe the war is not worth fighting, and only a quarter favor sending more troops.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Hamid Shalizi and Adam Entous in KABUL, Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR, Sher Ahmad in GHAZNI, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ; writing by Peter Graff)