On a warm spring day in 1983, I stood across from what had been the seven-story U.S. embassy in Beirut and watched as rescuers picked through tons of mangled steel, torn concrete and glass shards -- the rubble left by the first Muslim suicide bomber to strike an American target. Tenderly, rescuers put bits of bodies -- more than 60 were killed in the lunchtime bombing -- in small blue plastic bags.

Over the past quarter-century, I've covered the rage of the Islamic world, witnessing much of it up close, losing friends who became victims to its extremist wings and watching its furies swell. But I've never been scared until now.

The stakes in Iraq -- for which the Abu Ghraib prison has tragically become the metaphor -- are not just the future of a fragile oil-rich country or America's credibility in the world, even among close allies. The issues are not simply whether the Pentagon has systemic problems or whether Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon brass or even the Bush administration can survive The Pictures. And the costs are not merely the billions from the U.S. Treasury to foot the Iraq bills today or the danger that Mideast oil becomes a political weapon during tumultuous days down the road.

The stakes are instead how the final phase of the Modern Era plays out.

That 500-year period, marked by the age of exploration, the creation of nations and the Enlightenment that unleashed ideologies designed to empower the individual, faces its last great challenge in the 50 disparate countries that constitute the Islamic world -- ruled by the last bloc of authoritarian monarchs, dictators and leaders-for-life. The Iraq war was supposed to produce a new model for democratic transformation, a catalyst after which the United States and its allies could launch an ambitious initiative for regional change.

But now, whatever America's good intentions may have been, that historic moment may be lost for a long time to come.

Over the past dozen years many factors favored transformation in the world's most volatile region. The buzz among students at Tehran University, editorial writers in Beirut and Amman, the leading human rights activist in Cairo, a feminist leader in Rabat, intellectuals in Lahore and teenage girls in Jakarta has increasingly been about democratic reforms and how to achieve them. New public voices, daring publications, occasionally defiant protests in widely diverse locales gave shape to an energetic, if somewhat disjointed, trend.

Thanks to satellite dishes, shortwave radios and the Internet, Muslims have longingly watched societies from South Africa to Chile to the former Soviet republics shed odious ideologies and repressive regimes. Many haven't wanted to be left behind; they've wanted much of what we've wanted for them.

And despite the initial flirtation with fiery versions of political Islam after they emerged a quarter-century ago, Muslims of vastly diverse cultures and languages, in areas stretching from North Africa through the Arab heartland into Asia, ended up rejecting the ideas propagated by Iran's "mullahcracy" in the 1980s and the Taliban's intolerant theocracy in Afghanistan of the 1990s.

The recent patterns of regional change -- education, a new middle class and a demographic bulge heavily favoring the young generation -- have pointed societies in another direction. In the end, the quest for genuine freedoms either left many militant movements on the margins or forced them to join the mainstream.

In a globalizing world, Muslims are also increasingly conscious of common ground with the West, often more than Americans. How many Americans realize that Islam embraces the teaching and prophets of Judaism and Christianity as part of a single religious tradition? That common history is reflected when Muslim friends send me Christmas cards with quotations about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus -- from the Koran. Allah is not a different god, only the Arabic word for the same god, like Yehovah, Elah,Yahweh or Elohim in Hebrew. To that point, many Muslims are as appalled by the grisly beheading of Nick Berg as Americans are ashamed of the cruel inhumanity and apparent debauchery at Abu Ghraib.

The bottom line: The primary battle for the majority of Muslims has not been with us. Their jihad -- or struggle, as the word is accurately translated -- has been against their own autocratic governments. A surprisingly small minority of extremists, from Lebanon's Hezbollah to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, have gone after us most often because we were seen as the prop for corrupt and immoral regimes, or we deployed troops on their land to achieve suspect objectives.

Yet I am scared because the foundation for the region's democratic transformation has steadily eroded over the past year. Whether the U.S.-led occupation was wise or well-handled, the way it unfolded in Iraq has profoundly disappointed many Muslims both near and far from Iraq's borders. The accumulation of events threatens to undo rather than remake the region, in turn delaying or diverting the course of the Modern Era's final phase.

The occupation of Iraq has affirmed the worst fears of the Islamic world, reinforcing distaste for America and what it represents, and spawning wild conspiracy theories about the motives of the West. Many Muslims now see the American intervention as a devastating betrayal, starkly reflected by the Red Cross's recent conclusion that 70 to 90 percent of all Iraqis who were "deprived of their liberty" -- by the world champion of democracy -- "were arrested by mistake." Others in the region react with fury to the symbolism of a naked Arab male on a concrete floor tethered to a female American soldier looking down with disinterested arrogance on her prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

"Beyond those frolicking soldiers, there is a certain cavalier attitude toward Arabs and Muslims that has created a sense that Arabs are guilty until proven otherwise," reflected Hisham Melham, a Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya television. So while America's ambitious postwar initiative to promote democracy in the "greater Middle East," -- which includes imaginative proposals, such as training 100,000 female teachers to instruct and empower girls by closing the gender gap -- will probably still make its debut at three international summits next month, it's unlikely to generate much traction anytime soon.

For now, America's ways have been discredited for many beyond America's borders. The reaction in some quarters is already ridicule. In the end, the most enduring impact of Iraq and the travesty at Abu Ghraib may be to set back the course of the Modern Era for years, even a generation or more.

With emotions so raw and expectations unquenched, I am now anxious about what will fill the vacuum. Disillusioned by what they see as the failure of the world's superpower to provide protections, Muslim societies in search of change may turn inward for sustenance and direction. There are few alternatives. Their own governments -- several of them America's allies -- have banned, imprisoned or exiled genuine opposition.

And that may not only widen the gap with the West, it could also spur an intense clash of civilizations, a prospect I had until very recently rejected. With the shared quest for empowerment, I thought it could be avoided.

But what I fear most is that frustration over Iraq and disgust with Abu Ghraib will give common cause and a rallying cry to far-flung Muslim societies. Until now, al Qaeda -- with its global reach -- has been the exception. Most Islamic groups have had local causes and operated at home or very nearby. And they've always been a distinct minority.

The worst-case scenario is that the Cold War of the 20th century is followed in the early 21st century by a very warm one, with no front lines, unpredictable offensives and a type of weaponry from which we're not yet sure how to protect ourselves. This time the majority could become involved, either by empathizing, sympathizing or actively participating in a cause they see as righting a wrong against them.

The unintended consequence of the Iraq experience could well produce a third generation of militants -- a cadre that didn't fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s or train in bin Laden's camps in the 1990s -- who will launch a conflict whose tactics, targets and goals will be even more amorphous. Their conflict will be more than an intensified or expanded war on terrorism. And, I fear, we'll be groping for a long time to figure out how to counter it -- and how to get back to finishing that final chapter of the Modern Era.

Author's e-mail: wrightr@washpost.com

Robin Wright covers U.S. foreign policy for The Post. She has reported on the Middle East for the past 30 years.