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In Cafe Debate, a Victory for Elections

"It's all a game," he said.

But Abbas was a lone voice. Not that others thought the elections would be conducted peacefully; few didn't predict violence. But many of the writers, critics and intellectuals seemed to suggest that the price was worth paying.

For the most enthusiastic at Shahbandar, the mood recalled so many other watershed moments in Baghdad since the U.S. invasion in March 2003: Optimism greeted each turning point, heralded as a new beginning, even if it turned out to be short-lived.

A U.S. Army helicopter flies over billboards in central Baghdad that urge Iraqis to participate in national legislative elections on Jan. 30. (Atef Hassan -- Reuters)

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"If they had done elections in the first place, it would have stopped the situation from being the way it is," said Heidar Mohammed, a 37-year-old bookseller. "If there were elections, the people would have accepted the government from the beginning."

A bearded man with a bulging knapsack handed out leaflets to cafe-goers. One read: "Toward an Iraq that is democratic, united and just." Behind him was a newspaper vendor hawking his wares: "Read the newspaper! 150 dinars!" One of its headlines announced the destruction inflicted Wednesday by three car bombs in Mosul, the country's third-largest city.

"A country will not find progress without making sacrifices," Mohammed said.

He pointed to the Iran-Iraq war and the battle in 1988 to retake the Faw peninsula on the Persian Gulf. Thousands were lost, he said, "for Saddam's moment of madness. If we lose 100 or 200 people as martyrs in the election, the sacrifice is worth it."

"This is the tax that we have to pay," added Mohammed Thamer, a poet. "We have no other option, no other solution."

Around the entrance of the cafe, Iraq's past and future collide. On the walls inside are pictures of Iraq's history: the bare-chested 1936 wrestling team, King Faisal's court after World War I, the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939. Outside the door are election posters bearing promises: "Elections equal security and stability," says one. "Iraq First," says another.

Danif, Karim and Yassin, friends who gather every Thursday at the cafe, smiled as they talked about the vote. Like others, they knew little about the candidates, the parties or their platforms. But they celebrated what the elections represent.

"I don't trust anyone in politics," said Karim, 48. "I only trust the Iraqi people."

Yassin sipped his tea, then spoke up.

"With the election," he said, "the pages of the totalitarian order will be turned and never opened again."

The U.S. Embassy has gone to great lengths to limit its public involvement in the elections, and the American military, which will have 150,000 troops in the country during the vote, is expected to stay far from the polling stations. Given the level of disenchantment and skepticism about the United States in Iraq, it may be the best way to ensure the elections' legitimacy.

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