The outcome of Iraq's landmark constitutional referendum will not be clear for several days, but there is already one certainty - that Iraqis have embraced the democratic process and are eager to have a say in their country's future. They flocked to polling booths on Saturday despite the threat of being attacked by insurgents: The turnout is likely to have been as high as 65 per cent. Three years ago, Iraqis also poured into polling stations, but under quite different circumstances. Asked to vote for a president, but offered a choice of dictator Saddam Hussein and one other candidate - voting for whom they knew would mean persecution - they opted for self-preservation. Hussein, eager to point-score against his opponents, claimed that turnout had been 100 per cent and that he had won 100 per cent support. Times have changed dramatically since then. On Wednesday, Hussein goes on trial on the first of what could eventually be dozens of charges for abusing the rights of his people. He and seven officials from his regime face execution if found guilty in the first case, the 1982 massacre of 143 Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims. As with Saturday's vote to determine the shape of the new Iraq, the facing of a court of law by the leader ousted by a US-led invasion in March 2003 will be a momentous occasion for Iraqis. That invasion has led to 21/2 years of conflict, violence, religious and ethnic in-fighting and broken infrastructure. Iraq still has a long way to go before it emerges from the consequences of the occupation. But the Iraqi people are, at least, beginning to put their past behind them. The referendum and Hussein's trial are not, however, guarantees of an end to the bloodshed caused by the ex-president's supporters and opponents of the foreign invasion. The moves could potentially usher in a new period of instability. Shi'ites, who comprise 60 per cent of Iraq's 27 million people, and Kurds, who account for 20 per cent, mostly support the 140-article charter, which provides them with autonomy in the southern and northern regions where they are concentrated. Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq under Hussein, have generally opposed the constitution, believing it will dissolve the country into Shi'ite and Kurdish mini-states controlling the bulk of the country's resources. The document will be formally rejected if two-thirds of the voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces have voted against it - a possibility that cannot be excluded. A 'no' vote would force the factions back to the drawing board, limiting elections planned for December to a new interim government to redraft the charter. If the constitution is passed, the elections will choose a new, four-year parliament in a step widely seen as being the culmination of Iraq's transition from a dictatorship to a sovereign democracy. Hussein's trial, meanwhile, will be closely watched by supporters and international law experts, who fear it will not be conducted impartially. A failure by the Iraqi judges to follow due legal process and allow the former leader the right to defend himself properly will damage the nation's image and affect its efforts to usher in democracy. Neither the outcome of the referendum nor Hussein's trial will instantly end the insurgency; but if both are seen to be handled fairly and with transparency, the efforts to derail Iraq's future will less easily attract support. The fear that is stalking the country will, it is hoped, then dissipate and with it will come the confidence needed to rebuild the nation. Foreign troops will be able to leave and Iraqis will be finally able to govern themselves without the need for outside help. Oil-rich Iraq has much potential. Through greed and a hunger for power, Hussein stole that from Iraqis, taking their basic rights and a good standard of living for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Iraq has entered an era of rebirth. With fairness and openness in mind, those directing its future can, in time, build a strong, safe and democratic nation.