02/14/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
On Jan. 30, Baghdad awoke to the crack of mortar explosions. Was this the start of the bloodshed the insurgents had threatened or just business as usual? The polls opened early, but most people hung back. By around 10 a.m., however, when no more explosions came, Iraqis flocked to the polls—in determined groups, with neighbors and families taking to the streets in a way most haven't dared in months for fear of suicide bombers. The atmosphere was like a carnival: Children played soccer in the middle of the road. Friends proudly held up their ink-stained fingers to one another laughing—a rare sight in Baghdad in recent months. The young waved flags and whooped with excitement. Older people, who had known freedom before, wept openly. It was as if, at least for a day or two, an immense burden had been lifted: After Saddam, the coalition's bombardment and a constant insurgent threat, the people of Iraq were finally empowered to do something for themselves. And they weren't afraid. "I have come to vote because my children paid for this vote with their lives," said retiree Abu Mohammed, 62, whose two children died in an insurgent attack. "I want to vote for freedom and democracy."
Mitchell Prothero in Baghdad