ON SUNDAY the Iraqi people go to the polls in the most important election since the US and British invasion of 2003 removed Saddam Hussein. It is also probably the freest election ever in the Middle East, outside Israel.
And all that is thanks to George Bush and Tony Blair and the brave soldiers of the US-led coalition, including those 179 British troops who died in Iraq.
The election will be untidy, votes will be bought and bullied, there will be violence, perhaps even atrocities by those determined to stop Iraqis from making their own choices. The results will almost certainly produce no dear winner. There may have to be weeks of tortuous negotiations until a coalition government is formed, with all the new parties, such as the Ayad ]amal Al-Din's Ahrar party, propelled into kingmaker roles. Iraq still faces many dangers.
But the transformation is extraordinary. The give and take of politics now exists in a country which, under Saddam, was described as "a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath".
More than 6,000 parliamentary candidates are standing on Sunday. As the election has approached more parties, secular and sectarian, have been campaigning. There is a party representing women. There have been countless live TV debates. The press in Iraq is the freest in the area.
All such progress is watched with envy by neighbouring populations (especially in Iran) and with concern bordering on rage by their rulers.
The years since 2003 have been horribly bloody as different sects and national groups in Iraq have struggled against each other, reinforced by terrorist murderers from outside. The most brutal fights have been between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Under Saddam the Sunni minority viciously suppressed the Shia majority. The invasion ended all that.
Inevitably many Sunnis reacted with fury. With the direct help of al Qaeda, Sunni extremists did everything they could to bring down the first Shia government elected in 2005.
Fighting for re-election in Iraq is the Shia Prime Minister Maliki, an exile under Saddam who has developed into a strong, indeed sometimes ruthless leader. Many Sunnis fear that he is too dose to the Shia dictatorship in Iran. Some people feared that the Sunnis would boycott this poll, as they did in 2005. But so far they have not.
For the elections to be really significant they have to be regarded as legitimate by all parties, otherwise frustration could spill into violence. And the real test of democracy is whether those in power are willing to surrender it if they are defeated at the ballot box. The scholar Fouad Ajami
said this week: "Peace has not settled upon Baghdad but Iraq is, even in its present condition, a rebuke to the dynasties and dictatorships of the Arab world." Ajami says America, and Britain, can be proud of what the blood of their soldiers has achieved "a representative government, a binational state of Arabs and Kurds, and a country that does not bend to the will of one man or one ruling dan."
I have an Iraqi friend who returned from exile in London and has been working non-stop for women's groups and secular parties, despite being targeted many times by terrorists. So long as Iraqis like her believe Iraq has a great future, so do I.