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At a time when Iraq has largely faded from the headlines -- at least, except for Sunday night's Best Picture win for the Iraq war film "The Hurt Locker" -- the country appears to be making significant strides away from the sectarian violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion and toward the establishment of a true democracy.

Bombings got Sunday's parliamentary elections there off to a shaky start, with as many as 30 killed, but at the end of the day, violence faded and turnout was high -- 55 percent to 60 percent, according to early estimates, and much higher in some regions. That's better than most U.S. presidential elections, and the relatively low level of violence is a testament to the performance of Iraqi security forces in their first major test since American troops withdrew from the nation's urban areas. U.N. observers said they saw few signs of voting irregularities, like those that cast last year's elections in Afghanistan into doubt.

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What may be more impressive than the turnout is the competitiveness of the elections themselves. In a country that not so long ago was accustomed to the sham elections that kept Saddam Hussein in office, this one has turned into a nail-biter between current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. In contrast to previous elections, which were largely a contest between sectarian candidates, these two contenders are scrambling Iraq's electoral coalitions. Mr. al-Maliki has attempted to run on his credentials as a nonsectarian leader, and Mr. Allawi, who is a Shiite, is supported by a bevvy of Sunni politicians.

Most accounts suggest that it's unlikely that one electoral slate or another will win enough votes to form a government, meaning extensive negotiations will almost certainly be necessary to form a majority coalition. When that happened five years ago, it took nearly half a year, a time when violence and disorder spread through the nation. But this election might be different. A nation that invested so much energy in a peaceful, fair election might not let violence return so easily this time.

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