The United States, Britain and their coalition partners have managed since June to uphold the necessary fiction that they no longer occupy Iraq. They need to make their strategic falsehood come true in 2005 by sticking to the Jan. 30 target date for the Iraqi election and by ensuring that it leads to majority rule.
Majority rule is an attainable and legitimate result for the balloting, even if an important part of the country's 20 percent Sunni minority continues to bomb, behead or bully other Iraqis as it seeks to create chaos, prevent voting and/or regain power. Fallujah, in its own way, already voted for its view of Iraq's future, and lost.
The former Baathists and foreign Sunni extremists who turned Fallujah into Terrorism Central wrote in blood their campaign's "moral values," which center on blocking Iraq's Shiite majority, thought to be 60 percent of the population, from ever gaining power. It is no more complicated than that.
Resistance to majority rule is the core issue of Iraqi politics, both the violent and nonviolent varieties, and ultimately weighs on the scales of Iraq's national destiny even more heavily than occupation. Ending the occupation in fact as well as in name will help make that clearer.
This should be a moment of transition for the Bush administration not only in Cabinet appointments at home but also in emphasis on goals and methods in Iraq. It is morally right (if also intellectually perverse) to hold the new Iraqi government that will emerge from foreign occupation to higher standards than the dictatorships and autocracies that surround it.
But the perfect must not become the enemy of the good in Iraq: The current level of instability in the Sunni heartland cannot justify delaying the elections and prolonging a fake sovereignty behind the facade of Ayad Allawi's interim government. The utility of the U.N.-sanctioned transfer of responsibility to a government that exists in name only has run its course.
An Iraqi government drawn from a majority vote should open the way for ending the combat role of American and other foreign troops. That role should now be counted in months, not years. By next December it will be more than time for Iraqis to take on the political and security responsibilities of establishing and maintaining a new order in their country.
As the results of U.S. training of Iraqi police and soldiers remain uneven, it becomes more and more likely that the Shiite and Kurdish militias that U.S. officials have fought to keep out of any significant role in maintaining national order will be called on by the next government to do just that. The new order will be run on Iraqi rules, however uncertain, messy or even tumultuous they may seem at this point.
Legitimacy, which will come through the establishment of majority rule in Iraq, must be a goal more immediate than democracy, though they are obviously related. Electoral legitimacy trumps both misplaced U.S. concerns about the legacy of its occupation and the self-serving desire of some Sunni politicians (and their backers in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who style themselves as the protectors of Sunni power in Iraq) to put elections in limbo by canceling the Jan. 30 election date, even though it is immutably inscribed in Iraq's transition laws.
Abandoning the date would effectively jettison Iraq's only clear legal framework. Although the U.S. Embassy has remained quiet about a growing series of violations of the laws by Allawi's CIA-directed intelligence service and other departments, Ambassador John Negroponte wisely and forcefully opposed the call for postponing elections.
That effort and the continuing combat in the Sunni heartland have obscured the success that Shiite religious figures and politicians have had in developing a unified list of candidates -- including a few Sunni notables -- for the new 275-seat assembly. A joint platform that has the approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani will also be published shortly before the filing deadline of Dec. 10.
The platform, I am told, will contain a mild endorsement of Islam as the religion of the state and will go on to stress democratic principles and plans for an orderly transfer of power. Developing a national consensus among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and arranging an "equilibrium of population groups at the top" will be priority tasks for the new assembly, according to one person involved in drawing up the list.
Those lofty aims may be beyond the immediate reach of a country with the tragic history of Iraq, which seems to exist to remind us all of life's cruelest complexities and human fallibility. But a national vote on Jan. 30 is a necessary first step in changing that.