Turnout in the Iraqi election was "as high if not higher" than expectations and violence was significantly less than anticipated, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday as he embarked upon a trip to the Middle East.

Gates called it an amazing contrast to the last time Iraqis went to the polls, saying "we couldn't have written a script from the vantage point of March 2007 to be where we are today with the low level of violence and significant turnout for election."

Despite fears of high-profile suicide- and car-bomb attacks, there were only a handful of incidents around the country, Gates said he was told by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Instead, Gates said, an estimated 80 percent of the explosions in Baghdad during the morning were from what Odierno termed "bottle noise bombs" -loud explosions that did little damage.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq was forced to change their tactics," Gates said, crediting the improved abilities of the Iraqi Security Forces.

In the south, eight out of the nine provinces did not have any security incidents, he said.

From the build-up to the election - including "campaigning that went on in the context of a peaceful environment basically" - to voting day itself, the electoral process was "an extraordinary change" from years past, Gates said.

He said this morning he was shown a classified chart that compared the week-by-week level of violence leading up to the 2005 elections compared to 2010 and the "contrast was just staggering."

After results are finalized it could take months for the Iraqis to negotiate among the winning parties and form a government, a process Gates remarked would likely be complicated.

"We hope it won't take too long," he said.

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