Heading into the first multiparty elections in 81 years, Iraqis in January were an odd brand of hopeful and fatalistic. "It's one of my wishes to die at the gate of the polling station," said a smiling Suheil Yassin in Baghdad. "I want to be a martyr for the ballot box."
At least 36 Iraqis did die trying to cast their vote Jan. 30, but over 8 million succeeded. Purple-stained fingers became an overnight fashion symbol and sparked colored revolutions beyond the Arab world. No one expected women with children in tow to stand in line at a polling station in defiance of Sunni militants who threatened to shoot them. No one expected candidates to stand for office after assassination attempts so numerous that parties only-no names-were listed on ballots.
Where once Saddam had assassinated opponents, like Shiite leader Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail, the electorate now swept the Shiite leader Ibrahim Jaafari into office. Where once Saddam gassed its Kurdish citizens and turned them out of whole cities, the electorate now awarded them its second-highest vote, thrusting Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani into the presidency.
At President Bush's State of the Union address to Congress the following week, the daughter of Sheikh al-Suhail, Safia, stood next to Laura Bush and flashed a peace sign and a purple finger before turning to hug Janet Norwood, the mother of a Marine killed in Iraq, who wept openly on the shoulder of the Iraqi. The two women had never met, but suddenly had everything in common.
If it seemed the Iraqis had in the act of voting defied the suicide bombers, the Saddam holdouts, and the leftist naysayers, such opponents of democracy would not go gently into some dark night. Roadside devices and suicide bombers-sometimes hands wired to the steering wheel to guarantee no escape-pushed the U.S. death toll in the 2-year-old war beyond 2,000. Merely the rumored threat of a suicide bomber turned a Shiite festival in Baghdad into a stampede that killed 1,000 in August.
Attacks increasingly targeted Iraqi soldiers and police but spiked sporadically against U.S. forces: Roadside bombs killed 18 U.S. troops on Aug. 3 alone; 14 of them were Marines drawn mostly from one unit based in Columbus, Ohio. Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared Shiites and other Muslims participating in the new government "infidels." But as strikes against Iraqis increased, any support for the insurgency shriveled. Calls to a tip line for terrorist activity in Anbar province increased 20 percent in October and November. One call led to the Dec. 9 arrest of senior al-Qaeda member Amir Khalaf Fanus, known in Ramadi as "The Butcher." Weary of the insurgents' hold on the city, residents are increasingly reporting weapons caches and roadside bombs.
Progress, if halting, did little to appease the American left, either. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told Texas radio listeners: "The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong." Republican senators, too, seemed to agree that fighting a war into 2006, an election year, would be bad politics. On Nov. 15 they voted 79-19 in favor of a defense appropriations amendment urging the president to begin troop pullback early next year.
Saddam Hussein, in a dramatic courtroom eruption during his December trial, also fumed at the U.S. presence in Iraq, shouting, "How is [the court] legitimate when it was set up under the occupation?"
Iraqis followed his theater by television but apparently were little moved by it. By the time December elections rolled around for a permanent government, 11 million Iraqis turned out-70 percent of eligible voters. Interest increased because Sunnis who boycotted January polls, including those in Ramadi and Fallujah, this time participated.
In Babil, Jasim Hameed, 65 and disabled, insisted on being the first one to vote at his polling station. After all, he showed up at 6:30 a.m., Dec. 15, 30 minutes before it opened. "I'm here at this early hour to challenge the terrorists who want to kill the democratic process in Iraq and I want to encourage the healthy people to vote."
The war may not be over, but what a difference a year makes.