The prisoners, last week, again pushed their faces up against the bars on their windows, straining to get a glimpse of what was happening beyond the confines of their prison. And once again the citizens of Iran, Syria and the other countries of the Middle East peered out to neighboring Iraq for a vision of freedom.
"The display of determination by all Iraqis to participate in the democratic process," an editorial in Saudi Arabia's Arab News observed, "must have made a deep impression on all but the most hardened terrorists."
As many as 11 million of Iraq's 15 million registered voters out of a population of 27 million went to the polls to elect a 275-member parliament. They chose from among 6,655 contenders representing 307 political parties.
No restricted slate of candidates to squelch political dissent. No government goons at polling sites to intimidate voters or beat them away. No handpicked, patsy opposition over which ruling interests could easily roll. The only election-day surprise was the unexpectedly high turnout among the Sunni Muslim minority.
What happened in Iraq, for the third time this year, is a victory of ballots over bullets. In last January's interim elections, voter turnout was 59 percent. In October's constitutional referendum it was 64 percent. Last week it was 70 percent.
At what level of participation, Brent Scowcroft, can the objective of democratizing a hellhole of Middle Eastern totalitarianism be deemed a partial success? After how many inspiring elections, Howard Dean, can the trope about exporting freedom at the end of a gun be buried?
At any point over the past 33 months, Iraq could have collapsed into the abyss of civil war. It is to the great credit of a restrained Shiite religious establishment, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the forbearance of Kurdish leaders that they have not taken the bait of Sunni rejectionists, Baathist dead-enders and foreign mercenaries.
There is less reason to expect their tactics to be successful today than ever before.
Last week as Iraqis went to the polls, New York Times reporter John Burns traversed the Sunni strongholds that serve as the foundation for the insurgency. The opinions he encountered weren't the extremist sentiments of the past.
"This time, we have a real election, not just the sham elections we had under Saddam," Emad Abdul Jabbar, a teacher acting as supervisor at a polling site, told Burns, "and we Sunnis want to participate in the political process."
Some Sunnis even hinted at eventual reconciliation with the United States. "Let's have stability," a storeowner said, unintentionally echoing George W. Bush, "and then the Americans can go home."
This parliamentary election is no panacea. We have not turned a corner, reached a tipping point or achieved any of the other metaphorical signs of ultimate success in Iraq. The Iraqi people have, instead, demonstrated their continued resolve to rebuild their nation as a democracy in spite of decades of Baathist brutality, the meddling of Iranian mullahs and Syrian thugs, jihadist bombs and American missteps.
Once the votes are counted, the business of building a ruling coalition begins, with all the horse-trading, haggling and occasional hucksterism that goes with it. But religious and secular Iraqis, Shiites, Kurds and now Sunnis are participating in that process.
"Things are not perfect," the Iraqi blogger who goes by the pseudonym "The Mesopotamian" writes. "There are countless problems; the insurgency is not going to disappear; the reconstruction effort is in shambles; there is corruption and thieving everywhere; errors and mistakes in everything.
"Yet despite all that, the political process is proceeding like a dream and the tree of freedom is taking roots, and that tree will continue to grow and grow and grow."
The paleoconservative right and the delusional left in the United States, blinded by ideology, may not be able to see this growth of freedom. The long-oppressed people of the Middle East certainly do.