KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s first-ever direct presidential election began today, with people across this ethnically diverse land casting the first ballots in an improbable experiment with democracy.

After 25 years of near constant war – and under a Taliban threat of ruinous violence – voters descended on bombed-out schools, blue-domed mosques, and bullet-pocked hospitals to choose their leader for the first time in their history.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win the vote against 15 rivals, among them warlords, royalists and even an Islamic poet. But the size of the field could deny Karzai the outright majority needed to avert a run-off.

A 19-year-old Afghan refugee in Pakistan became the election’s first voter early Saturday, casting a ballot in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

“I cannot explain my feelings, just how happy I am,” said Moqadasa Sidiqi, a science student whose family escaped Kabul in 1992 during the Afghan civil war. “I would never have thought I would be able to vote in this election.”

Some 750,000 Afghan refugees registered to vote in Pakistan, and another 400,000-600,000 were eligible in Iran. Initial results were not expected until late Sunday or early Monday, but anything approaching a full count could take as much as two weeks.

While the Taliban threat of an overwhelming attack had not materialized by early Saturday, there were plenty of signs the rebel group was trying.

On Friday, a bomb-sniffing dog in southern Kandahar discovered a fuel-truck rigged with anti-tank mines and laden with 10,000 gallons of gasoline.

Election officials arrested three Pakistanis and said they planned to detonate the truck in the center of the city on polling day.

“This would have caused hundreds of deaths … and the electoral process would have been derailed in the area,” said Col. Ishaq Paiman, the Defense Ministry deputy spokesman.

A flurry of rockets landed in several cities around the country on Thursday and Friday, including one that hit a parking lot near the U.S. Embassy, and another that injured a young girl and an old man in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Still, none threatened to derail the vote, and most Afghans brushed them off.

“In 25 years a lot of rockets have landed. If another one lands because of the election, it’s no problem,” said Noor Uddin, a 49-year-old Kabul businessman, on Friday. “(Saturday) is a happy and historic day. That’s what is important.”

A day ahead of the vote, Islamic clerics urged Friday worshippers to embrace democracy, while election workers scurried to ready voting booths.

At the Blue Mosque, the capital’s largest house of prayer, Mullah Obeid-ul Rahman told some 400 faithful that Islam and democracy should go hand and hand.

“Saturday you should go and vote. Put your card in the box and say ‘God be praised!”‘ he said. “Give your vote to that person who is a good Muslim and can heal Afghanistan’s injured soul.”

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers and police, regional militias allied to the government, U.S. troops and international peacekeepers were deployed to protect the vote.

Expectations for the election have been set intentionally low.

Afghans have no experience with democracy, and most say they will vote based on the recommendations of tribal elders. The country of 25 million people is largely illiterate, and voters will have to rely on candidates’ photographs and electoral symbols to figure out which box to check.

Both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have sent observer missions, but neither will pass judgment on the fairness of the process, saying it would not be appropriate to try to hold Afghanistan to international standards. A small U.S. observer team also was monitoring the vote.

Afghanistan has lived under many forms of government in the past 30 years – from Pashtun monarchy to Soviet-styled communism, from rule by warlords to repressive Taliban theocracy. Now there are signs that democracy is getting a chance.

Rahman, the Kabul cleric, did not say which presidential hopeful he would pick, but he made clear that the only female candidate, former U.N. worker Massooda Jalal, was not his choice.

“In Islam, it is forbidden for a woman to become president,” he told the crowd.

At least one of his listeners disagreed.

“I am voting for Massooda Jalal,” said Fazel Rahman, 35. “I have come here to pray. I don’t care what the mullah says about politics.”

Associated Press writers Stephen Graham in Kandahar, Burt Herman in Mazar-e-Sharif and Amir Shah and Daniel Cooney in Kabul contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-08-04 2244EDT

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