Muslim Hamudi Hussein, a serene man with the build of a retired heavyweight, was chatting with friends as a parade of elated voters made their way home from the polls in this Shiite city that embraced Iraq's election like few others.
Asked by two reporters if he knew of anyone whose experiences could spell out what this election meant to the people of Najaf, what they've suffered and what they hope for, he paused. "Why don't you come home with me,'' he said. "I might have a few stories for you."
Did he ever.
The family suffered as much as any under Saddam Hussein, and were past supporters of the religious Shiite parties that probably fared best in the election. But the Husseins were part of what appears to be a surprisingly large minority of Shiites in the south who shunned the traditional religious parties for the secular, paternalistic figure of Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Their choice illustrates the diversity of opinion within a Shiite community that is about to enjoy power for the first time in Iraq's history. Far from being monolithic, Iraq's Shiites differ on everything from how to organize the state to the role of clerics in government. These divisions will be played out as the new parliament writes the constitution.
"Since the American invasion we've been suffering a lot because of some religious figures,'' says Muslim Hussein, who at age 40 is the oldest of 11 children. "We followed those parties into trouble before, but since they've been in charge in Najaf, they've forgotten us. They just look after their own favorites and family members."
Vote counting continued Tuesday as Iraq reopened its borders and authorities eased security restrictions put in place for the election. In Baghdad, election workers reviewed tally sheets and began inputting the numbers into computers. Final results are expected to be released early next week.
The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of religious Shiite parties and some secular figures, almost certainly won the most votes both here and nationwide.
But in Najaf, home to Sistani and Iraq's preeminent center of Shiite scholarship, Mr. Allawi's party was a surprisingly strong second choice of voters in a town where some were predicting a UIA sweep. Every fifth voter interviewed said they had cast a ballot for Allawi. If that trend holds elsewhere, Allawi - a former CIA source and the current American favorite - could be in a strong position when Iraq's new parliament sits.
The Muslim Hussein family history follows the sweep of modern Shiite experience in Iraq - from increasing prosperity for landless southern peasants 50 years ago, through the deprivations under Saddam Hussein that led to support for outlawed Shiite movements, to the present optimism of a long-neglected majority.
But for Muslim Hussein and the members of his extended family, the current optimism is not without complications, nor without fears that the bad old ways could yet return.
Their disaffection with religious political parties grew after Saddam Hussein was toppled. The family had longstanding tiesto the Dawa Party, an Islamist group with links to Iran that along with a similar group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), backed uprisings against Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980s and 1990s.
SCIRI and Dawa are the two biggest parties in the UIA list. Both have had a profound informal influence on Najaf's local politics since the regime fell. Their members are seeded throughout the security forces and local government, and many see them as the de facto rulers of Najaf.
But Muslim Hussein, who drives an inter-city bus, says they've done little to help poor families like his, which has 17 members from three generations crowded into a four-room home. He alleges that the parties have helped friends and family of senior officials get land, and worked on improving services in areas where their support is strongest, neglecting other parts of the city. "We expected more,'' he says.
Muslim Hussein's expectations stem in part from what his family has lost. In 1989 one of his uncles was executed for membership in the Dawa Party. And following the Shiite uprising in 1991, Muslim Hussein and another uncle, Abudi Azziz Jassim, were jailed as dissidents.
Today, Muslim Hussein bears the scars of18 months in the feared Radwiniyah jail. His hands are dotted with white marks where he was burned with cigarette butts, and the bottoms of his legs are covered with knots, the legacy of being suspended upside down from his ankles during some beatings.
In late 1992, he was released, and left his uncle behind in relatively good health. But a short while later a knock came at the door of his family home at 3 a.m. - it was agents of the intelligence service bearing Jassim's body. "No wailing, no public funeral, no talking about this,'' they were warned.
His father, Bush Hamudi Hussein, also bears the scars of that time. He was taken and tortured for two months in 1991. He too, was hung from his feet while in jail, and hasn't been able to go upstairs to the family bedroom for years.
"The revolution brought nothing but more problems for us," he says. His business, distributing government subsidized food rations, was taken away from him.
"We'll never be treated as badly as we were by the Baath,'' he says, referring to Saddam Hussein's political machine. "But even now, I go to government offices, seeking support, and they just turn me away at the gate. So why would we vote for them?"
The family has been touched too by the turmoil of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. After members of the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr invaded Najaf last summer, seeking to control the Shrine of Imam Ali and its pilgrim-fed coffers, many in Najaf felt terrorized. Eventually, US forces came to the city to remove Mr. Sadr's men by force last August.
On a hot night when most of the family was sleeping on the roof for some relief, a firefight broke out and shrapnel sprayed the roof, piercing the left hand of Muslim Hussein's son, Said. Today, Said is a happy and healthy boy, but his hand bears the ugly scar from the untreated wound.
The family then fled the city to a rural village for a few weeks, until the standoff ended. Today, they bear more enmity toward Sadr than the US over the incident.
With all of that behind them, despite their misgivings about Iraq's emerging crop of leaders, the family is united in saying they're optimistic about what comes next.
"All we expect now is a little bit of freedom and to live calmly,'' says Muslim Hussein. "What we've learned is that war creates the most suffering, so we're hoping that the freedom means that there will be no more war here."