By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- A year ago, just before President Bush delivered his State of the Union message, the U.S. death toll from the war in Iraq crept past 500. Now it has surged over the 1,400 mark.
Yet there has been an election and the Iraqis, for now, are brimming with euphoria as they set about the business of forming a new constitution and trying to lure the sullen Sunni Muslim minority into a secular government.
The election took place under protection of a U.S. security force that has grown 20 percent in a year to 150,000. Without that huge, well-armed force, backed by British and other international troops, the Iraqis probably would not have been able to vote.
A year ago, many Americans still thought of Iraq as a mop-up operation with the hardest fighting behind us. A few roadside bombs were going off here and there, but it had become a largely invisible war here. American troops had captured the big prize -- Saddam Hussein himself -- cowering in a spider hole south of Tikrit only a month before Bush addressed the nation.
Not many were forecasting that the worst and cruelest part of the insurgency was ahead.
The Iraqi force being trained to take some of the load off the Americans and the "coalition of the willing" proved insufficient to police the major cities of Iraq during the election season. At least they could not be trained in time to do the job themselves or the insurgents intimidated them and their families from taking up security roles.
Condoleezza Rice, during Senate confirmation hearings on her nomination as secretary of state, acknowledged that the administration's estimate of an Iraqi military force of 120,000 wasn't realistic. She promised to return later with a better estimate. She hasn't yet.
Still, despite skepticism about the Iraqis' capability to defend and preserve their fledgling democracy, the success of the elections has created another wave of optimism. It is the same kind of heady spirit that took hold after the American "shock and awe" victory and the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003.
A little euphoria may be in order now. The sight of Iraqis defying death threats to go to the polls has floored skeptics who had been accustomed to seeing nothing but a fright show in Iraq.
Even Europeans, with a legitimately elected government on the verge of being installed in Iraq, are said to be looking more favorably on finally making a contribution to Iraqi reconstruction. Bush may have a less frigid reception when he goes to Europe this month.
Indeed, it was a rare day for freedom.
Iraqi democrats will be long remembered for their purple-fingered pluck against terrorists who had dragged their neighbors into the streets and executed them in full view of the world just for being election workers or security workers. Their fingers stained with ink used to prevent multiple voting and fraud, they used them as symbols of defiance and honor.
The purples now follow a distinguished line of company: Poland's Solidarity movement, Czech and German students who revolted against their communist governments, the Baltic people who literally formed a human chain of 2 million from Vilnius to Tallinn to demonstrate their determination to break out of the Soviet Union; the yellow-power Manila revolutionaries who overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and the orange-jacket victory of Viktor Yushchenko's pro-Western Ukrainians.
The one difference is that, for the brave Iraqis, they had 150,000 Americans nearby; for the others, they were on their own, more or less.
The American troops and their allies went to Iraq as part of the war on terrorism and stayed to make the Iraqi election possible. The war has been less and less about the war on terrorism and more and more about the liberation and democratization of Iraq. It has become a war about winning freedom for the families of another nation.
Yet, over 1,400 Americans have died in Iraq, more than 900 in the last year.
There are not adequate words to say they are the real heroes of the Iraq election.
X John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.