These elections inspire hope for democracy, but cannot vindicate a misguided war

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There is no need to indulge in the soaring rhetoric of freedom so beloved of George Bush to feel heartened by what happened in Iraq yesterday. Whether it turns out that 50, 60 or more than 70 per cent of all registered Iraqis voted, a sufficient number risked the walk to the polling station to make this first attempt at a free election for half a century a credible exercise in democracy.

There is no need to indulge in the soaring rhetoric of freedom so beloved of George Bush to feel heartened by what happened in Iraq yesterday. Whether it turns out that 50, 60 or more than 70 per cent of all registered Iraqis voted, a sufficient number risked the walk to the polling station to make this first attempt at a free election for half a century a credible exercise in democracy.

In the Shia heartland and in the Kurdish region, the turn-out in places exceeded 90 per cent; elsewhere, the boycott declared by Sunni leaders was observed, but appears not to have been complete. There were attacks and there were casualties, but not on the scale widely feared. The single-minded courage of those who took part, against such great odds, is barely imaginable to those of us in countries where the main enemy of elections is apathy.

The relief in the White House and Downing Street last night was palpable. The words "better than expected" can rarely have sounded so sweet. Right up until the polls closed, this was a gamble that could have gone disastrously wrong. With security so tenuous and the country in lock-down, no one could forecast in advance how many would vote. The hope, last week still faint, that a united and democratic Iraq might eventually emerge from the present chaos now looks suddenly stronger.

Which does not mean that there are not severe difficulties ahead. There were parts of the so-called Sunni triangle where no one voted. If Iraq's democracy is to mean anything and Iraq is to remain one country, some way will have to be found of ensuring that those too resentful or fearful to vote are represented. The spirit of generosity and tolerance which suffused the joy of so many voters yesterday will be much needed in coming weeks and months.

As at other crucial junctures in Iraq's recent history, a key role will probably belong to the moderate Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The elections were as much of a personal triumph for him as they were a success for Iraq. He had insisted from the earliest days that elections were essential, that without elections, no government backed by the occupiers would have the slightest chance of being recognised by Iraqis as legitimate. His faith in his fellow-countrymen has been vindicated. He must now do his best to ensure that the Shia, who are expected to wield a majority in the new assembly, do not misuse their new power.

If the assembly can be satisfactorily constituted, the next step will be the nomination of a prime minister and a government, followed by the drafting of a constitution. There is great potential for discord. The biggest imponderable, however, is whether the insurgents, having failed to prevent elections, will start to lose heart, or whether they will redouble their efforts in the hope of blocking the new government and forcing a precipitate, and disorderly, end to the occupation.

We would add a post script. In the long term, it is possible that yesterday's elections in Iraq may be seen as marking the start of great change across the whole region. For good or ill, it is too early to judge. But it would be utterly wrong, now or in the future, for President Bush or the Prime Minister to claim that Iraq's elections vindicate their invasion.

Even before voting had started, officials here and in the US, were putting it about that those who opposed the war also opposed the elections - and so democracy itself. This is a calumny. Many of those who fiercely opposed the war, including this newspaper, advocated early elections as the very least that the US and Britain owed to Iraq and expressed the hope that they would succeed. We are as relieved as anyone that the voting passed off as well as it did. But the elections do not vindicate an invasion carried out on a false premise, a war fought without an international mandate or an occupation whose early stages were as disastrously mismanaged as they were.

If Iraq is now on the way to becoming a democratic state on its own terms, that is a positive and hopeful development. But it is no retrospective justification for the war.

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