The recent election in Iraq was more peaceful than many dared to hope
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
History may look back on the provincial elections held on the last day of January this year and see them as the point at which it could be said that Iraq had turned a corner and was heading towards a stable, democratic future.
Considering the situation just two years ago, when the country seemed firmly bent on plunging ever deeper into a nightmare of sectarian carnage and fragmentation, they were an astonishing achievement bearing many messages and huge implications.
On the security level alone, the polling passed off more peacefully than even the most optimistic had dared hope.
Voting took place in 14 of the country's 18 provinces, including all those that were the scenes of the worst violence of the past nearly six years. Only the three largely peaceful Kurdish provinces and disputed Kirkuk did not take part.
Yet the polling passed off with virtually no security incidents of any significance.
There was a huge security operation by Iraqi forces, but that was hardly a deterrent in itself, since those very forces themselves have very often been the targets of insurgent attacks.
There were no such attacks, failed, foiled or successful, on the day.
That could reflect the fact that, unlike the previous round of provincial and then parliamentary elections in 2005, this one involved full-hearted participation by the Sunni community.
Its disgruntlement and alienation had earlier inspired electoral boycotts and provided the sea in which the insurgents swam.
The security success of this election operation had clear implications for the prospects for further troop reductions by US and other coalition forces - though US commanders continue to warn that the situation may still not be irreversible, and that over-rapid draw-downs could be destabilising.
With some 14,400 candidates competing for just 440 seats around the country, there were fears that violence might erupt when the results were announced, given the large number of losers, all with access to guns.
But those fears have also proven unfounded, so far.
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The results announced on 5 February were provisional only in the sense that they are subject to complaints and appeals. Nobody expects the overall picture to be radically changed by that process.
There were grumbles by factions which had done poorly, but no trouble, and little serious questioning of the propriety of the polling.
That is not just a security achievement, but a huge step forward in Iraq's political development and the emergence of a real democratic culture.
For the polling produced major changes on both the Shia and Sunni sides of the political equation - changes that the factions themselves have largely accepted, even when they are the losers.
For the Iraqi people, it has been a real eye-opener.
They learned, for the first time, that they could hold those they elected to account, and change them if they failed to meet expectations.
"People are really happy," said one Baghdad resident after the election was over.
"They think this is how elections should be. The message is that those who are elected and don't deliver, will be removed, peacefully."
The transformations that these elections brought will be reflected in the general elections at the end of the year, since all the major national forces were participating in the provincial polls.
On the Sunni side, they included, above all, full Sunni reintegration into the political process, entailing big changes in the relevant provinces.
In Iraq's third city, Mosul, that meant that Kurdish factions which won control of the provincial council in 2005 by default because of the Sunni boycott, had to give way to the Sunni majority - a process that seems to be passing off gracefully.
There was tight security for the vote
There was fierce competition between rival Sunni factions in the former insurgent hotbed to the west of Baghdad, al-Anbar province.
Tribal leaders, instrumental in throwing out al-Qaeda and allied insurgent groups, had threatened mayhem if they did not win at the polls.
But in the end, they accepted coming in narrowly behind another Sunni faction with which they have agreed to form a coalition.
On the Shia side - and Shias make up 60% of the population - there were also huge changes, with big national implications.
First and foremost, the faction backed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the State of Law Coalition, came out far ahead of the competition in both Baghdad and the country's second city Basra.
It also came first, by smaller margins, in all but one of the mainly Shia provinces south of Baghdad.
But Mr Maliki's faction, like all other winners, will have to form coalitions with other groups in order to run provincial councils, since none of them won more than 50% of the votes.
His coalition's victory, and its campaign, clearly reflected the themes that have struck a chord among the Iraqi public.
Above all, he was being rewarded for his "Imposing the Law" campaign last year, in which the Iraqi army, with American help, moved not only against Sunni insurgents, but more significantly, against Shia militias in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere.
Radical religious groups did not do well, but will be represented
Though its roots are in Mr Maliki's Daawa party - a Shia religious faction - the State of Law Coalition campaigned on nationalist themes - the rule of law, and the primacy of the state.
Factions which continued to project a religious image, such as Abdul Aziz Hakim's Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), fared poorly.
SIIC had been regarded as the biggest Shia faction. It is also deemed close to Iran - where it was born and bred in exile - and advocates Shia autonomy in the south along the lines of that enjoyed by the Kurds in the north, something that does not seem to enjoy much electoral support.
The faction backed by the militant Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr also failed to excel, but, like the SIIC, did well enough to stay in the political game and join the process of coalition-forming that is now under way in the regions.
On both the Shia and Sunni sides, there was a clear shift away from the Islamic religious parties which dominated Iraqi politics after the 2005 elections.
The emphasis has been on capability, performance, honesty, and national commitment rather than religious credentials.
In the Shia south, election posters showed candidates wearing suits and ties, not robes and turbans.
"Even the religious parties have had to become secular," was how one Baghdad voter put it.
As though to underline that view, one of the first post-election alliances under serious discussion is between the SIIC and the most clearly-defined secular coalition, the Iraqi List of former Prime Minister Ayyad Allawi, hitherto the least likely of bedfellows.
The elections showed that the past four years have resulted in a politicisation of Iraqi politics, which had become a highly sectarian affair after the 2005 elections.
Now, the big religious-based coalitions which have dominated both Shia and Sunni politics and the current parliament have fragmented over national political issues, and new coalitions are being formed or explored which cross sectarian lines.
That is a natural development.
When the US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein and destroyed his all-pervasive ruling Baath Party, there were few political parties with any roots for people to turn to, so they fell back on sect, tribe, and clan.
The big election winner was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Now, real politics is taking over, in a complex and constantly-developing process that is likely to continue fermenting and mutating indefinitely.
And it has shown itself to be a strongly Iraqi process.
Despite the presence of more than 140,000 US troops and undoubted Iranian influence, none of the factions emerging from the polls could fairly be described as mere stooges of either Washington or Tehran.
One Western diplomat said the elections had shown Iraq emerging as the only truly functioning democracy in the Arab world.
Lebanon also has free elections, but its form of democracy is relative, with sectarianism built into the system and deals between political bosses often leaving little real competition or room for change.
Iraq's achievement has been at a terrible cost - uncounted scores of thousands killed, massive destruction, several million displaced from their homes, and much more.
Nor is it yet secure. Shortly before the election results were announced, a bomb killed at least 15 people in a restaurant at Khanaqin, north-east of Baghdad - a reminder that insurgents and others with a vested interest in violence are still out there, waiting to pounce if the current process falters.
There are many other challenges.
Nation-building legislation, especially the oil and gas law, is still held up by political bickering.
With oil prices plummeting, a budget crisis looms, which could affect the government's ability to maintain subsidies and high levels of public employment, and to absorb thousands of Sunni auxiliaries who turned against al-Qaeda (the "Sons of Iraq") into the security forces or find them jobs.
Nor is it certain that the Iraqi police and army are ready to stand alone and take the strain when the US forces withdraw.
But the provincial elections have produced the most hopeful signs so far that a process of national rebirth may have begun in Iraq, unique in the region.