Across Iraq the violet-stained index fingers that became a symbol of Jan. 30's successful election have faded. Poll workers told voters that the indelible ink would take at least three days to go away-long enough to certify once-only participation without turning into an annoyance. But in the days preceding the election, voters swapped advice on Baghdad call-in shows on how to remove the ink, fearful the stains could mark them for terrorists. Paint your finger with skin lotion before entering the polling station, then wipe it clean before reentering the street, some advised. Dip your finger in boiling detergent and rub vigorously, others counseled.
Instead, a strangely sanguine YaYa brotherhood-and sisterhood-took hold on Election Day in Iraq. As more and more Iraqis filed into the polling stations, the inky finger bruise became a badge of courage, a mark of achievement, a symbol of defiance of the terrorists, the doomsayers, and the prevailing miasma of uncontrollable chaos. Now most Iraqis hope the adrenal flush over high voter turnout and low violence won't wear out like indigo ink.
Iraqis defied relative optimists. If election turnout "is anything like 30-50 percent then it's successful," proclaimed one editor (National Interest's John O'Sullivan) before polls opened. Over 60 percent of Iraqis nationwide turned out for the country's first multiparty election in over 50 years; upwards of 90 percent in some regions. The overall figure is nearly double the turnout for recent elections in Europe. It is equal to U.S. 2004 election turnout, which was the highest in the United States since 1968. Those percentages do not include another quarter of a million Iraqi exiles, who voted abroad.
"I moved to mark my finger with ink, I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants," wrote Iraqi Mohammed Fadhil. The numbers are a statistical black eye not only for Iraq's tyrannical neighbors but also for Western news outlets (including The New York Times and The Washington Post) who editorialized for postponing the vote.
But Iraqis are less interested in rehearsing the historic score and more concerned about what the results will mean. As ballot counts near completion, they want to know not only who won but who voted. The demographics will say much about how much unity the country can build on.
The Kurds, preliminary estimates show, voted in the largest numbers-well over 90 percent of registered voters in some districts. Shia voters were not far behind, with over 80 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Sunni numbers were well below the mark, although given threats from insurgents and boycott fatwas from some Sunni clerics, most poll-watchers are surprised their numbers registered at all; about 15 percent of Sunnis who were eligible voted.
Despite those variances, experts believe that a wide cross-section of candidates will be allowed to take seats in the 275-member National Assembly. Part of the reason is the process itself: Candidates ran on lists rather than as individuals, and some lists combined Shia, Sunni, Kurd, and other candidates. Further, the high turnout means winning lists are more likely to form what's been called a national unity government, where lawmakers choose leaders by coalition rather than by lead-party fiat.
Successful balloting, suggests Middle East expert Walid Phares, transforms Iraq into "the leading reformist democratic society" in the region. "Even the Arab intellectuals say this," he said the day after polls closed, "by virtue of what [Iraq] just did."
Mr. Phares, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, predicts that the election victor, likely the Iraqi National Alliance, a list headed by majority Shiites and favored by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will form an alliance with both Kurd and Sunni leaders to elect first a speaker and then a president and two vice presidents. Leaders in recent weeks have suggested they may choose interim president Ayad Allawi to lead again, despite the popularity of the National Alliance's ideologically driven leaders, like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who narrowly escaped a car bombing at the gate of his home four days before elections). Vice presidential picks are likely to be Kurdish and Sunni. Jalal Talabani is the favored Kurd candidate, and interim prime minister Ghazi al Yawer could very well be the Sunni pick.
Can so much unity come out of two years' bloody diversity?
"The reality is that if Iraqis wanted to engage in civil strife, they would have already done so," said Mr. Phares. "Not that those tensions don't exist. We've seen a battle among various groups over whether or not to hold these elections. Some wanted to postpone, but even their position was an attempt to come closer to the process, not further away. That is, with the exception of Zarqawi."
Mr. Phares noted that "in a multiethnic society, as we've seen in America, all tension is not going to go away. The question is, will this be Yugoslavia or Switzerland?"
Assuming civility rules over bloodshed, the country's many minority candidates, once seated in the lawmaking body, are likely to find positions in other key areas, such as formation of the executive branch and selection of a constitutional committee, which will draft the permanent constitution.
Another key issue for the newly elected: a status-of-forces agreement. Political leaders have endorsed continuing the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq. But a government-to-government pact, similar to those the United States adheres to with strategic allies like Japan, could be "the first work" of the national assembly, suggested Entifadh Qanbar, a National Alliance spokesman.
The most glaring splits are not likely to come between Shiites and Sunnis but within each Islamic subset. Shiite hardliners have long been feared as favoring an Islamic republic similar to Iran, something Shiite secularists oppose. Likewise, the greatest tension for Sunni leaders is internecine, pitting the radicals and militants who oppose any form of democracy and are linked to Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda-affiliate network against what Mr. Phares calls "secular activists," most visibly represented by interim Prime Minister Ghazi al Yawer. His numbers also include communists and left-leaning intellectuals.
Ironically, the violence terrorists hoped to use to break apart the political process is driving Islamic factions together. "The elections are the battle for freedom against despotism and independence against occupation," said Sadr Ad din al Qabanji, an official for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Najaf. Viewing the election as "a secular-Islamic, Shiite-Sunni, Arab-Kurdish competition" is a mistake, he said. "The real competition is that between peace and terrorism. All the Iraqis are in the peace and law trench."
That's a sentiment mirrored on the streets on Election Day. "Are you Sunni or Shia?" commentators like Radio Dijla host Ahmed al-Rikaby asked voters. "I am Iraqi," came the perennial reply.
Some Iraqis had waited long for the day. Saleh Rasheed Fatah was 2 years old when the last multiparty elections were held in 1924. A lifelong resident of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, he entered a neighborhood school to cast his first national election vote on Jan. 30, then promptly died. At the same polling station, a mother remained at the school after she voted-in order to give birth. She said she would name her son "Election."
Iraq's Christian minority did not escape tragedy on Election Day. Of 36 Iraqis killed in suicide-bomb attacks, two Christian men, a father and son, were killed just after they voted together in Baghdad. Muaayyed and Firas intercepted a bomber outside the school polling station just as he blew himself up. Firas was married less than a year ago and his wife is six months pregnant.
"Sunday was a bittersweet day for us," said a relative, Insaf Safou. "But one day this child will be able to say, 'My father and grandfather were killed on a very special day for Iraq.'" At funeral services at a Baghdad church on Feb. 1, hundreds turned out in a show of respect for the father and son, who they said were martyred for the cause.
Pain and pleasure at the polls did not matter in areas where minorities said they were denied the right to vote. Voters in half a dozen villages near Mosul said ballot boxes never arrived in time for them to vote. Assyrian Christians, the area's primary residents, marched in protest on Feb. 1, accusing local Kurdish officials of blocking their votes. On Feb. 2 Kurdish officials denied the charge and agreed to investigate the irregularities. Meanwhile, leaders at four evangelical congregations in the region said their church members experienced no obstacles to casting votes.
Mr. Phares said anyone who's lived in the Middle East knows better than to expect overnight miracles after the Iraqi vote. In the 1980s Mr. Phares, a Christian living in Lebanon at the height of its civil war, wrote a book in Arabic predicting free and democratic societies in the region within one or two generations. "But you never imagine that you will see it," he said. "I am very realistic. This is not 'it' yet. Noah sent out the first bird, and he knew there was firm ground but he did not see it. This is the first bird."