Of all the questions posed by Iraq's elections, one of the most important appears to have been definitely answered: The Iraqi people want the right to govern themselves, and they're willing to make great sacrifices for it.
While doubts about their fervor for the creation of a new country abounded before the election, the sight of millions of Iraqis casting ballots - some giving their lives to do so - has sent a powerful message likely to reverberate in Iraq and beyond:
• It will buttress the forces within the country favoring a united Iraq - from nervous police recruits to minorities clamoring for a voice in writing a national constitution. It should also encourage follow-through on calls for national reconciliation, in a country that remains divided along religious and ethnic lines.
• It will give the US more leverage in trying to engage the Europeans and United Nations more fully in rebuilding the country.
• It is likely to prompt further handwringing by Iraq's neighbors, which were already frightened by the instability they saw in the country.
While the election could help quell some of the unrest,
deeper concerns exist among authoritarian regimes nearby about the sight of Iraqis risking their lives to begin taking governance into their own hands.
When added to the forward movement taking place between Israelis and Palestinians, the Iraqi elections at the very least create a dynamism that will further stir up a region that remains one of the biggest tension points in the world.
"Arab states are deeply anxious about what they see happening in Iraq, and Sunday's election will only add to that, if in quite different ways," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "They are terrified by instability in Iraq and how it could spill over borders. But now they are also terrified by the Iranian factor in the rise of Iraqi Shia political force, and they are terrified by the big lesson that the spreading of democracy and the 'ending of tyranny,' as President Bush has called for, could be furthered if not actually achieved."
"It is," he adds, "a time of great anxiety for some of Washington's closest allies in the region, as well as for more troublesome regimes."
According to Mr. Gerges, the elections delt "one of the heaviest setbacks" to the Iraqi insurgency. "For them, this is a major strategic reversal," he says. The irony is that this point may end up largely lost on both governments and populations in the region as they focus more on the implications of the American role in Iraq. "The dilemma for Arab civil society is that they don't want democracy that appears to be imposed at the end of an American gun," he says.
Yet the elections were first about Iraq, and about Iraqis' vision of their past and future, some analysts say. "Iraqis proved they really wanted this, but by voting they were saying different things," says Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University. "This was about putting the Saddam regime to bed forever: That's why we saw so much celebration. This was very much a validation of regime change."
But the former CIA Middle East specialist says the vote was also about the future. The election did not so much legitimize a new Iraqi government as open a door to a new government being seen as legitimate by the Iraqi people - something other leaders since the US invasion have not achieved.
"The new interim government will have to prove its legitimacy by establishing security on the streets, dealing with the insurgents, and creating jobs - not to mention establishing a different, more independent relationship with the Americans," she says. "Like with any government, performance in going to be the key."
In order to build on the blow dealt the insurgents and the momentum for national unity, the new government will have to work harder to bring all ethnic and religious groups into the governing process, experts say.
Despite Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's call Monday for a national dialogue to ensure broad representation after the election, one concern remains how the minority Sunni population, which by all accounts voted in far fewer numbers than the Shiite majority, will react to the reality of a Shiite-dominated Iraq.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes in an e-mail that the election results are likely to overplay the weight of the Kurdish population in Iraq, while underrepresenting the Sunnis who did vote. He notes that a substantial number of polling places in Sunni areas did not open and that most Sunnis are spread out in large urban areas. The Kurds, for their part, are concentrated in their own region and are likely to have supported their own ethnic ticket.
The Sunni struggle to find a place as a minority in the new Iraq may have reverberations around the region. "The Shia awakening that Iraq's Sunni population is coming to terms with doesn't end at the border," says Ms. Yaphe. "The Shia of the entire Gulf are emboldened more than they already were by the Iraqi elections, and that is causing waves."