By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website
The election in Iraq is an important stage in the effort to bring peace to the country but whether it is also a turning point remains to be seen.
Turnout was high in Kurdish areas
It is necessary to recognise the fact that many Iraqis did vote but the Shias and the Kurds were always expected to turn out in large numbers.
The majority Shias believe that the future belongs to them and were under religious orders to vote. The Kurds want to maintain their distinct identity and needed no instruction.
What is not yet clear is the turnout among the Sunnis. As it is the Sunnis who are fuelling the insurrection, that figure is vital. The full tally is not likely to emerge for several days as the Electoral Commission collates the numbers.
At the very least one can say that the insurgents did not make a decisive mark on election day.
All this has left one observer, the former British representative to the Coalition Authority, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a little less worried.
"This went better than we expected or feared," he said. "It is a huge step, it legitimises the political process and moves away from perceived American control to put matters firmly under Iraqi control. It is a terrific step.
"The violence will continue but it did not dent the determination of Iraqis to vote.
"The Sunni problem remains however and must be addressed."
Strategy for 2005
The US strategy now is to try to make work in 2005 what did not work in 2004 - the Iraqi-led development of both politics and security.
The hope is that the election will mark the moment when the injection of democracy transformed the crisis.
According to this strategy, the political process will culminate in a new constitution by October and a fully constitutional government by the end of the year.
At the same time, Iraqi security forces will take over more and more from the foreign troops until a light at the end of the tunnel illuminating the words "exit strategy" can be seen.
It is an article of faith among American neo-conservatives that freedom - and freedom is a word constantly used by President Bush - has its own power. His comment on the election included the word again. "The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the centre of the Middle East," he said.
In similarly euphoric tones, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair also declared: "It was the force of freedom that was felt throughout Iraq today."
Those comments show how the justification of the Iraq intervention has changed from its initial anti-Saddam intent into a titanic struggle between democracy and terrorism.
But for this to work, the Sunnis must be brought into the constitutional debate.
There is some optimism in British and American circles that this will happen. Officials do not believe that a Shia-led government will necessarily be a sectarian government.
One senior British official said: "There could be a meeting to kick off the constitutional debate which brings in people outside the Assembly. There could be town-hall type meetings across all areas. The drafting committee could be weighted according to populations. The government itself could be balanced to bring in Sunnis."
A Sunni elder statesman and election candidate, Adnan Pachachi, said: "It was an important day for Iraq and it showed the defiance and the determination of the Iraqi people to continue on the path towards democracy."
As for the next stage, he added: "The main thing, I think, is we should really have a
constitution written by representatives of all segments of
Iraq's population. I think it would
improve the security situation."
The pessimists doubt if it will be that simple.
According to them, the power of the insurgents to destabilise politics and security remains. Yet the Iraqi security forces have proved so woefully weak that one leading US commentator said late last year that they were basically being "sent out to die".
One or two powerful car bombs could dissipate some of the optimism which has developed over this election.