By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Baghdad
In Baghdad's normally jam-packed streets, the children were out playing football. The only traffic was the occasional police car and a few patrolling tanks.
Polling day turned the streets of Baghdad into a playground
The security measures were exceptional. The atmosphere was remarkable.
At a polling station I visited in a smart Baghdad suburb, Iraqis were revelling in a rare moment of peace. They put on their best clothes to go out and vote.
Iraqis had some sense of a control over their own future.
They were voting under a constitution largely written by Iraqis, for a government that will serve for four years - a government quite likely to oversee the departure of many of the US, British and other foreign troops.
Civil war warning
The big difference, compared with Iraq's first free election in January, was the turnout amongst Sunni Arab voters.
There are no official figures yet. But large numbers of Sunnis voted, even in the troubled Anbar province, the heartland of the insurgency.
Many of the more moderate Sunni Muslims concluded, straight after the January election, that the boycott was a mistake and had only reduced their influence.
Iraqis from all the communities appear to have voted
Since then, many more Sunnis have been convinced by their vehement opposition to the current government.
The Sunnis see the government, which is dominated by religious Shia Muslim parties, as corrupt, fostering sectarian hatred, and working against interest of Sunni Muslim Iraqis.
One leading Sunni politician warned that if the government was re-elected it would lead to civil war.
Intriguingly, the insurgents apparently caught the mood.
Some insurgent groups - particularly the more secular ones - urged their supporters to take part.
Some even suggested they would defend polling stations.
Several of the more hardline Islamist insurgent groups did issue a statement condemning the elections as the work of Satan.
But there were virtually no attempts to attack polling stations - unlike in the January election.
So this big turnout was not necessarily a ringing endorsement of the political process - in some cases it was more an act of desperation.
A new government of national unity could steer Iraq to stability
But it does offer the potential to bring more Iraqis into the political process if a more inclusive government can be formed - and that is the huge challenge.
The electoral commission has said it will take at least two weeks to count the votes. That is partly because of the extra checks to prevent fraud.
So far there do not seem to have been that many complaints of vote-rigging. Maybe that will change when the result is out.
Then the massive task of forming a coalition begins. The new national assembly is likely to look very different.
For the first time there will be a substantial bloc of Sunni Muslims - perhaps 40 or 50 of the 275 seats.
Amongst the predominantly Shia Muslim parties, the more secular group led by the Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could well gain seats.
The one-time American favourite, Ahmad Chalabi, has broken away from the ruling coalition to lead his own party as well.
That suggests the potential for a more broad-based government, perhaps even a government of national unity, including Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, religious and secular parties.
But on past form, there must be huge questions about whether Iraq's politicians have the maturity and the negotiating skills to do a deal quickly and cleanly.
After the last election in January, it took the parties exactly three months to agree on a new government. That endless wrangling tarnished the image of government before it had even taken office.
Most Iraqis would like now like to see their politicians agree quickly on forming a government with the authority to start solving Iraq's many problems.