Think of Sunday's elections in Iraq as the starting point. It was the democratic revolution the Iraqi people never had as they watched U.S. troops sweep into Baghdad and then occupy their country. It was the moment in which individual Iraqi citizens, by risking their lives to cast their votes, finally began to make their own history.
The election was an experiment, and until Sunday nobody could be sure how it would turn out. Would Iraqis defy suicide bombers and mortar attacks to get to the polls? Did the people of Iraq want a new, democratic nation enough to die for it? In braving 109 separate attacks on polling places Sunday, a majority of Iraqis gave their answer.
The stories of election day courage should become part of the narrative of the new Iraq. Karl Vick of The Post described a man who voted at a girls high school in Baghdad where a suicide bomber had attacked just a few hours before. "I would have been happy to have died voting at the time of this explosion," the man said. The Post's Anthony Shadid quoted the director of a polling place in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad who described the election as a wedding for Iraq: "For a half-century, no one has seen anything like it. And we did it ourselves."
If Sunday was a new beginning, what can Americans and Iraqis do to avoid the mistakes of the past two years and build a country that's worthy of the bravery of its people? The important decisions lie with Iraqis, and that's the crucial point. This is now their country to shape or misshape.
Bush administration officials are understandably spinning and crowing about the success, but they should resist any new sense of mission accomplished. "The bloodbath didn't happen, but the country remains deeply divided," notes Raad Alkadiri, an Iraqi consultant for PFC Energy who served as an adviser to the British occupation authorities in Baghdad. He says initial returns suggest that about 60 percent of eligible Iraqis voted; for all the commitment of those who went to the polls, more than four in 10 Iraqis apparently did not.
So the new government's first challenge will be to reach out to the nonvoters. Alkadiri quotes Winston Churchill's famous formula: "Magnanimous in victory." The largest vote probably went to the United Iraqi Alliance, which was blessed by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. If its Shiite leaders can reassure Iraqi Sunnis and other minorities that they will be equal citizens in the new Iraq, they can form a stable government that, over time, will defeat the insurgency. But if the Shiite politicians engage in sectarian politics and efforts to settle old scores, they will fail.
A key figure will be the wily former exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who took cover under the Sistani umbrella last year. Administration officials are said to be worried by reports that the De-Baathification Committee, which Chalabi heads, has drawn up a list of 200 election candidates who should be denied a role in the new government, including several prominent allies of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Perpetuation of those old feuds is the last thing a new Iraq needs.
The other big challenge for the new Iraqi government will be dealing with the United States. The polarity is now reversed: Now it's up to the Iraqis to shape the relationship. The right answer for both sides is a gradual process of U.S. military disengagement -- in which the number of U.S. troops declines as Iraq's security forces increase in numbers and confidence. It's a delicate balance: Most Iraqis want the U.S. occupation to end, but they also fear the chaos that will erupt if American troops leave too quickly.
Mowaffak Rubaie, the current Iraqi national security adviser and a possible member of the new government because of his close relations with Sistani, told me last weekend that Iraq won't ask U.S. troops to leave until next year at the earliest. Pressure will grow for the Iraqis to negotiate a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. But it can be blunted if the Bush administration follows through on its tentative plan to shift its military role to training the Iraqi army, conducting joint Special Forces operations against the insurgents and turning over daily security chores to Iraqi forces wherever possible.
The Iraq story has had too many painful twists for anyone to offer rosy scenarios. Sunday's vote wasn't a culmination, but a beginning. The new Iraqi government may make as many mistakes as its American liberators have, but at least they will be Iraqi mistakes.