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Rather: High Point For U.S.

Dan Rather is on assignment in Baghdad, and filed this Reporter's Notebook on the election.

A lot went right with the just-completed first free elections in Iraq in half a century.

The fact that the election was held at all is a major accomplishment.

Overall, Iraqis were brave and determined, and turned out to vote in large, heartening numbers.

Conservative estimates placed turnout at 50 to 60 percent of the 14 to 15 million Iraqis who were eligible.

Whatever the final percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots turns out to be, it will be high, especially considering that it came about in the teeth of a ferocious guerrilla warfare effort to stifle turnout.

The Iraqis interim government, the U.S. military, and American diplomats had a good plan and carried it out well.

More than 5,000 polling places in all parts of the country were well organized and well protected. Voting mostly went off quickly and smoothly for citizens.

The much maligned, newly trained Iraqi security forces put in charge of basic polling place protection performed far beyond general expectations.

U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, put in command of Iraqi training last year, deserves special credit for this.

Most of the credit, however, should go to the Iraqi troops themselves. They are a long way from being ready to take over security for the country as a whole, but they did a good job under extremely difficult conditions Election Day.

American soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors once again delivered -- big time -- in hundreds of ways, large and small. From lowest privates to command headquarters, they did everything from aggressive patrolling to helping Iraqis get to the right polling places.

U.S. Army Gen. George Casey is in overall command of all coalition forces in Iraq and he had all working superbly.

The insurgency failed to pull off a single "spectacular" on Election Day. There was not one cataclysmic event. More than 44 people died in attacks of various kinds, but there was not nearly as much violence as had been anticipated.

The insurgency isn't over by a long shot, but it is clearly off-balance and reeling. Whether it stays that way or not in post-election days remains to be seen.

But no one should be mistaken: the guerrilla war fighters suffered substantial loss in the election, both in fact and in perception.

The momentum shifted in favor of the U.S. military and Iraqi forces a few months ago, and has accelerated in their direction with the election.

Before the election, it was widely believed that the turnout would be a major test of President Bush's goal of establishing a democratic government in the midst of the Middle East, and for hopes of stabilizing Iraq and eventually bringing home the 170,000 U.S. troops here.

The tests were passed. In the first hours after the election, the voting appears to be the best moment for America's mission in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad and the subsequent capture of Saddam Hussein.

Is it the tipping point for the whole effort? It may well be. There is, however, still much to be done.

The Bush administration's exit strategy is often stated as getting Iraqi security forces to the point where they can take over internal and external protection of the country.

But any exit strategy that does not also take seriously the problems of electricity, sewage, garbage and fuel -- and show concrete progress toward solving them -- runs high risk of failure.

Next to security, the number one concern among ordinary Iraqis is getting regular, predictable electric service.

Close behind is doing something about the long lines for gasoline in a country with perhaps the largest oil reserves in the world.

There is danger that U.S. authorities and newly elected Iraqi political entities will not act swiftly and decisively in dealing with these problems.

Overwhelmingly, most Iraqis simply cannot understand how the United States has failed to help in these areas for so long.

Another danger is how the Sunni minority deals with the reality of the Shiites' strong showing at the polls.

Do the Sunnis now throw themselves into a renewed effort at what amounts to civil war, or do they try now to deal themselves a hand -- as best they can -- in the new democratic government? Also, what is the Shiites attitude toward this? Do they allow and encourage the Sunnis to have a significant role, despite the Sunnis low vote turnout?

Even with the good news of Sunday's election, nobody said the way ahead will be easy. And nobody is right.

By Dan Rather

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