Ever since I can remember, my parents have been sharing stories with me about Iraq and why my family had to flee before I was born. I have relived memories with them about the horrors of their situation, from the story of their five cousins who were tortured and murdered to my great aunt who had to watch her son’s foot being drilled. I have also relished their stories of silly antics, long car rides and twisted alleyways that give way to manicured olive groves — all with an insatiable thirst for what makes Iraq so rich and boundless. Hence, not surprisingly, I was ecstatic this weekend. I religiously watched every clip about Iraq on TV; I vigilantly read every story; I attempted to assuage my feelings with an obsessive search for information about my people and the fulfillment of their dream; I called my parents and congratulated them. These elections were a celebration for us, and, as the director of a polling station in Baghdad described it, “a wedding for all of Iraq.”

This weekend, two-thirds of the people of Iraq showed up in the face of death, along with thousands of Iraqis overseas, to send a message. They voted for a new Iraq; they voted to kick out terror from the country; they voted so that the occupation can end; they voted so that dictatorship can never gain a stranglehold over the country again; and most importantly, they voted so that the tragedy of Halabja is never repeated, and so that mass graves are never again seen.

Indeed, nothing can take the day of the elections away from me, not a handful of criminals and killers, not a catalogue of skeptics who doubt my people, and not the many who refuse to acknowledge the bravery of millions of Iraqis. Amid our relentless anger at an administration that continues to disappoint, we cannot forget that Iraq’s first free election in half a century, regardless of its flaws and how it came about, is exactly that — a historic event; and Iraq today, despite what the harshest critics would like to admit, stands like a phoenix amid the rubble of mediocre governments and corrupt autocracies. After all, Iraqis within Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, who had never voted in their respective countries, were now doing so for Iraq. And while Al Jazeera’s main headline screamed “28 people killed on day of elections,” the real story was that “eight million and more risked their lives to show the world that they do not want to live in fear anymore.”

According to my aunt, terrorists and Saddamists tried to intimidate and force people to stay home with death sentences until the very last night. And yet, despite the immediacy of the threat and the escalation of scare tactics, she is proud to say that the streets were filled with people at 6:00 a.m. fearlessly celebrating, dancing and crying. This courage is what was so humbling, especially when I know that many of us in democracies would falter at the prospect of voting when it could cost our lives.

At the time of such a display of conviction, it is a shame that much of the passion on the issue of Iraq is spent on “disagreeing” with America and arguing about the questionable justification of the war, where it is time for us to instead unequivocally support the plight of Iraqis as they continue on their painful journey. That 60 to 70 percent of Iraqis came out to vote clearly indicates that the people want change and prosperity. And in a country where a 50 percent turnout is deemed amazing, how dare anyone belittle the Iraqi voters and their choice?

I am not claiming, however, that this was the ultimate answer. I do not know if voting is going to be a 100 percent guarantee for a better future for Iraq, but I do know that not to have done it would have been a 100 percent guarantee of remaining in the same miserable situation the country is in now. That is why people voted. And today, I am terribly proud of being an Iraqi. Seeing those people going to voting centers on foot, risking becoming targets of violence, was an act of courage that cannot be seen every day. And hearing the happy voices of my parents and friends in California, at having their dreams finally fulfilled, was priceless. After all, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2005, the Iraqi people, not the politicians or anyone else, were the heroes writing that next chapter in their history.

Altaf Saadi is a freshman in Morse College.