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KABUL - Defying threats by the Taliban, Afghans turned out at polling stations across the country to vote in the country's landmark presidential election Saturday, which appeared to be unfolding relatively smoothly despite a string of deadly attacks and allegations of fraud.
The day began somewhat ominously in Kabul as a handful of rockets detonated without causing significant damage shortly before polling stations opened and a slight tremor shook the earth as voters began lining up to cast ballots.
"I'm enthusiastic," Mohamed Anwar, 61, said as he left a polling station in Kabul Saturday morning, his finger stained by indelible ink. "Most people are eager to vote."
The contest between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani has the potential to mark the first peaceful handover of power in Afghanistan's history if it is not marred by a disputed result or widespread violence.
A credible election would go a long way to enable the United States to wind up its combat mission here by the end of the year and keep a residual force - as well as sustained financial aid - for years to come.
In Paktia Province in eastern Afghanistan, insurgents began firing rockets Friday night in an apparent attempt to intimidate voters, said Gen. Mohammad Yaftali, the commander of the army's 203rd corps.
"They've been shooting rockets and mortars since last night, trying to create fear so people don't vote," he said.
Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the commander of the Afghan Army's 201 Corps, said 16 people had been killed in clashes on election day in the seven provinces his unit oversees. Most were soldiers, he said.
The scope of the violence around the country and its impact on the election could not be ascertained. It has been hard to promptly determine the level of bloodshed during previous Afghan elections because reports from remote parts of the country are often slow to trickle in. Some polling stations in the east were shut down because of fighting, but officials said they could reopen later in the day.
Still, U.S. officials expressed optimism that violence wouldn't be the dominant theme of the historic day.
"I think security will not be the issue today, but, as you sense it, the potential for fraud," Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, told a senior Afghan commander.
Observers working for the campaign of Abdullah in Kabul reported instances of fraud at a couple of polling stations. At one voting site, observers and election commission officials got into a shouting match after an election official was reportedly seen telling elderly men whom to vote for.
"This is a serious problem," Abdullah observer Shuresh Saleh said. "The guy working for the election commission is telling people to vote for Ashraf Ghani."
The poll worker was allowed back into his polling station after receiving a warning.
Sayed Yasen, a 23-year-old journalist from Ghor Province, said he expected that at least 20 percent of ballots counted in the election would be fraudulent. But he said that was a tolerable margin for a country with entrenched corruption and a young democracy.
Wearing a suit and a black and red tie, Yasen arrived at his polling station carrying photos of his bloodied face - the result, he said, of an assault by members of the Taliban who were displeased by an article he wrote. Voting gives him slight hope that the incoming government will manage to strengthen the state's authority outside the capital, he said.
"I'm hopeful the situation will improve," he said. "If not, we'll have a return to warlordism, which will mean chaos."
At a polling station across town, Farouq Azam said most Afghans recognize that electing a new president will not fix the problems of a country beset by an entrenched insurgency, an anemic economy and ebbing Western aid.
"People are hopeful, but they don't think there will be much change," he said. "Unless there is peace, there will continue to be war."
In Helmand Province, voter turnout appeared to be lower than during the first round in early April, said Shawali, a tribal elder in Marjah district.
"The Taliban threatened locals they would cut their fingers if they took part in the election," he said. "Security is very good today. Nothing has happened so far in Marjah. But in spite of that, people fear the Taliban. They are ruthless people and this is why people took seriously their warning."
Abdul Wali Ahmadzai, the head of the provincial council in Logar Province in eastern Afghanistan, said that turnout was low during the morning but picked up later in the day.
"Considering the Taliban threats in the morning, people feared to come out of their homes earlier to cast their votes, but later when they understood security was good, they headed to polling stations," he said.
Ghani and Abdullah sharpened their criticism of each other during the final weeks of the race and have warned that state institutions were biased against them. Many Afghans fear that if the result is close, the loser could refuse to concede the race alleging state interference or widespread fraud.
Both men have promised to sign a security pact with the United States soon after being sworn in, a promise that has made Washington eager to see the end of President Karzai's tenure. Karzai took the reins of the country in 2001, shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime, and was reelected in 2009 in a fraud-plagued race against Abdullah.
Official results are not expected before early July.
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Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.