Iraqis can be proud this week of what they have just achieved: a second parliamentary election, with more than 6000 candidates competing, and a strong voter turnout, free from government interference.
The elections were conducted under an open-list proportional representation electoral system that maximized voter choice and will ensure a fairer distribution of seats in the legislature than in many western democracies.
They were guided by an election law that banned the use of racist or sectarian rhetoric in election campaigns, or the use of religious symbols. When candidates broke the rules, rival parties or impartial election monitors pointed it out, and the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) proceeded to warn the offending party and levy a hefty fine for its digression.
They were conducted with the Islamic Seminary in Najaf -- the leadership centre for the Shi'a faithful comprising the majority constituent of Iraq's diverse population -- taking a neutral stance, emphasizing time and again that it was not backing any particular list or candidate. Instead, Sayid Sistani, Iraq's most senior cleric, called on all Iraqis to exercise their right to vote, and to base their vote not on sectarian or ethnic calculations, but rather on who they believed would serve Iraq best.
Despite all the violent efforts of Al-Qaeda and die-hard Baathists, Iraqis came out en mass to vote. When mortar attacks landed, people rushed to help the victims, and then returned to their place in the queues to make their voice heard: NO to wars and violence; YES to peaceful participation and opposition; NO to a return to tyranny; YES to democracy.
Outside of Iraq, media reports liked to focus on the few violent incidents that took place - ignoring the fact that tragic as the loss of innocents were in these few days, the violence was thankfully not serious enough to pose major obstacles to voter turnout, and that in most provinces in Iraq, millions had come out to vote without facing any difficulties other than having to wait in long lines of excited voters.
As an election monitor, I watched those queues form in Arlington, Virginia of all places. There, as with other set locations across the United States, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East, Iraqi expatriates and refugees were allowed to cast their vote as part of the Out-of-Country-Voting scheme organized by IHEC.
Some of those Iraqi Americans that were queuing up in the Virginia voting station lived locally; others had commuted from cities like New York or Boston so their voice could be heard. They were tired but enthusiastic, chatting away in unique blends of Arabic, English and Kurdish, and in dialects that reflected the mosaic of the Iraqi population back home, and the experiences of Iraqis abroad living in different corners of the globe.
Many voted for the State of Law Coalition (337) led by PM Nouri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. Why? Perhaps because they believed PM Maliki to have achieved more than any other Iraqi politician in the way of bringing security back to Iraqi streets, kick-starting the economy and fighting corruption. Or because they agreed with Dawa's position on federalism, or the policies they advocated that would help stimulate and manage the enormous task of reconstruction and development that violence had forestalled over the last few years.
Others voted for Ayad Allawi's Al-Iraqiya Coalition (333); others still for the Iraqi National Alliance (316) led by Maliki's predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Why? Perhaps because they saw in Allawi or Jaafari or other figures in those two competing lists better substitutes for Maliki, or because they favored Allawi's stance on de-Baathification, or Jaafari's on the status of US troops. We can only guess.
There was a strong Iraqi Kurdish turnout, as well as from Iraqi Turkmen, Chaldeans and other minority groups. They too differed amongst themselves on who to vote for. Some supported the Kurdistan Alliance of Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani which currently dominates the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, others voted literally and metaphorically for Change -- the coalition list headed by Talabani's former ally, Nawshirwan Mustapha.
With each Iraqi voter, there were different reasons and motivations for voting. Different stances and perspectives on Iraq's history, its present and future. Some believed Maliki was the savior of Iraq, others the reason for its problems. Some saw in Allawi the politician that would bring positive changes to the country, others feared he would bring back Saddam's Baath Party instead.
But as they each cast their vote, I witnessed something inspiring: Iraqis supporting rival groups laughed and joked with one another, they took pictures to honor the day, and left the station together speculating about the election's outcome, and which of the winning lists would join together in parliament to form the government...
As an Iraqi, I am proud of what my country and people achieved this past weekend. Following disappointing elections in Afghanistan and controversial ones in Iran, we Iraqis showed that our country's trajectory beams on a different path. Democracy in the Middle East is not impossible.
Let us hope the losers accept defeat with grace, the victors with the sense of huge responsibility that comes from recognizing the huge catalogue of pressing issues that they must tackle immediately once they assume governance.
I have faith in both groups. I have faith despite the immense challenges that lie ahead, of rebuilding a state and a nation that has had to endure decades of tyrannical dictatorship, sanctions, and war, and then occupation and internal strife. I have faith that now more than ever, and with each passing day, Iraqis are closer to realizing their dream of a free, prosperous, democratic Iraq.
Jaffar al-Rikabi is an Iraqi graduate student at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He dreams of the day he can serve his country of origin in whatever capacity, shape or form.