NAJAF, IRAQ - Shortly after 7a.m., voters began trickling past the security guards, under the red and blue streamers decorating Barada Elementary School. In the women's voting room, a parade of black abayas swelled as the hours went on.
An elderly woman, eager to be the first on her block to vote, clutched a laminated card with the symbol of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite list that almost certainly won the most votes here in Sunday's election to select Iraq's 275-member transitional national assembly.
The woman was turned away when poll workers learned she couldn't read, sent to fetch someone to help her mark the extensive ballot of 111 lists. But that didn't affect the mood of excitement and defiance in this polling station and throughout this southern Iraqi city that suffered under Saddam Hussein.
A second woman teetered up to the registration desk and greeted the poll worker: "Peace be upon you and death to the Baath," she said.
Najaf, the shrine city that serves as the symbolic heart of Shiite Islam, came out in force Sunday to vote in an election that many here hope will put Mr. Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath Party safely into history.
While Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs also hope for better government and a share of power that reflects their status as Iraq's majority, there seemed to be something cathartic in the act of voting, which combined a rejection of the past with hopes for a safer future.
Unlike Baghdad and other points north, where voting was plagued by violence and the doubts of Sunni Arabs about their position in society, turnout here appears to have been massive, close to 80 percent, according to preliminary estimates. Families poured out into the blockaded and peaceful streets and many proudly displayed their stained fingers – ink was used to prevent voting twice – to passersby.
"This is an enormous day for us. Finally, we're able to vote for people we know, people from Najaf who we can judge by words and deeds,'' says Hasan Salim, a carpenter who says he woke up at 6 a.m. thinking of his two dead brothers, lost to Hussein's regime.
Thousands of Najaf's sons died in the Iran-Iraq war and much of its old quarter was leveled by Hussein after a 1991 uprising. Its citizens were frequently punished for failing to join the regime's Baath Party.
In Najaf and across much of the Shiite south, the determination not to be abused again appears to have coalesced behind the United Iraqi Alliance, the electoral list sponsored by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that includes most of Iraq's Shiite political parties and movements.
Ayatollah Sistani is Iraq's most revered religious figure, and his clout, combined with Shiite demographics, should leave Shiites with the most seats in the National Assembly that will write Iraq's new constitution. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the country's population, but candidates favored by Shiite voters will probably take more than 60 percent of the seats in the assembly, since turnout in many Sunni Arab areas was low.
"I feel the new government will write a constitution that gives us our rights,'' says Mr. Salim. "The old regime kept Shiites from going to their shrines, they followed me around just because I'm a Shiite, and now all of that is going to stop."
To be sure, that constitution will be written after months of difficult negotiations. The question of how much autonomy should be given to ethnic Kurds in the north and how much Islam should shape what has been a secular state could prove vexing.
Many of the southern Shiites are religiously and culturally conservative, something Salim points out while explaining the vote's importance. "Even my wife went out to vote today. I usually keep her at home, but I made an exception because this is so important."
"This is another step toward the success of our revolution,'' says Abdel Ariba, a policeman working at the Barada school, his neighborhood's polling center.
Abdul Al-Rida, wearing the turban of a religious scholar, emerges from voting and recalls how different this was from Hussein's periodic "referendums" on his rule. Such elections had mandatory attendance, and voting "no" on Hussein's presidency was decidedly unsafe. But Mr. Rida took a chance during the last election, in 2002.
"I hid in my house for three days – I didn't go out for anything – so people would think I'd left town,'' he says. "It used to be very dangerous to wear the turban of a religious man; they killed many of us. Thanks to God, I was only tortured a few times. Today when I voted, I really felt free."
About an hour after the polls closed at 5 p.m., workers began sifting through the ballots. At one polling station, they huddled around candles as electricity was down in the city. Workers dropped votes for each list into separate piles. Judging from the size of each pile, the United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani-backed list, was well ahead of the others.
This city's palpable sense of grievance has deep roots as well as recent history behind it. Eid al-Ghadir, a Shiite feast day banned under Hussein's Sunni Arab regime, was celebrated the day before the vote. The holiday marks the day Shiites believe that Prophet Mohammed selected his son-in-law Ali to be his successor.
Ali was assassinated more than 1,300 years ago, not far from here, in a dispute over who should lead the faithful. His killing hardened the split between Shiite and Sunni. Eid al-Ghadir serves to commemorate what Shiites see as an injustice that also became a metaphor for Hussein's rule.
"It's like we're having two feasts this year,'' says Zuher Shakar, a mechanic with the callous on his forehead of a man who prays frequently. "On Saturday, we voted for Imam Ali. Today we vote for the future."