The determination and hopefulness of Iraqis on election day were captured in many dispatches, none better than in one by British journalist Robert Fisk. “Even as the explosions thundered over Baghdad,” he wrote, “the people came in their hundreds and then in their thousands. Entire families, crippled old men supported by their sons, children beside them, babies in the arms of their mothers…. Just after voting started, there were 30 detonations in the city in less than two minutes–but still they came as if on a family day out.”

However large the turnout may have been (and immediately, especially in the European press, questions were raised about initial rosy estimates) the fact that so many Iraqis risked the dangers they did says something profound about most people’s desire to decide for themselves how they are to be governed. As one man told Fisk, “We only had military coups and revolutions before. We voted ‘yes’ or ‘yes.’ Now we vote for ourselves.”

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the elections mark a major change in Iraq’s fortunes. For one thing, the participation of Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population, was extremely low, causing the leading Sunni clerics to declare that the election “lacks legitimacy.” This suggests major problems ahead as those chosen in the election begin the process of negotiation and compromise necessary to create a viable state. Adding to the problems of the new officials, their authority will be compromised as long as masses of Americans remain ensconced in Baghdad’s Green Zone like the colonial powers of old.

Moreover, as long as the US occupation continues, the insurgency is likely to continue–possibly even to grow. The Bush Administration interpreted the turnout as a vindication of its policies. But it’s important to recall that this past June, after we were told that the transfer of sovereignty would lead to progress on the ground, the situation only got worse. (It’s also worth noting that if it had been up to the Bush Administration, there never would have been an election; US proconsul Paul Bremer wanted to set up what would have been essentially a puppet regime, and it was only after dire threats from Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani that the White House grudgingly agreed to allow elections to take place.) One article making the rounds of the web in the days after the election was a New York Times dispatch from 1967 reporting that “United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of the turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 percent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots.” The dispatch added that although the winners were US-backed generals it “does not, in the Administration’s view, diminish the significance of the constitutional step that has been taken.”

Even with no party on the ballot campaigning unambiguously for the Americans’ departure, many Iraqis, despite their fears about safety, made it clear that they viewed the election as one way to accelerate a US withdrawal. This includes Shiites, who will dominate the new government by their numbers after suffering years of oppression under Saddam Hussein. It seems doubtful, however, that Iraqi officials who have worked closely with the US occupiers will heed their wishes; two days after the election, Iraq’s president said it would be “complete nonsense” to ask foreign troops to leave now.

At each step of the way in Iraq–from the initial invasion, to the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, to the botched and corrupt reconstruction process, to the hastily called election–the Bush Administration has made the situation worse. If anything, the continued US presence may inhibit Sunni moderates from joining the constitution-writing process. But despite all the difficulties and flawed voting, the newly elected Iraqi officials may be able to create a viable government. They need all the international support and encouragement they can get in the months ahead, but that ought to come from a renewed UN effort in which the US role is confined to providing funds for rebuilding. The Iraqis should be making plans for what to do after regaining their sovereignty; the Americans should be making plans to go home.