IN CONCRETE TERMS, not much will change in Iraq Wednesday, when sovereignty shifts from the U.S. occupation force to an interim Iraqi government. The Iraqi armed forces won't suddenly become more capable. The enemies of democracy inside the country, who have been escalating their attacks in recent weeks, will not subside; if anything, they are likely to work harder to discredit the new government and prevent movement toward elections planned for December or January. For U.S. forces, life will become more complicated but not less dangerous, as they attempt to provide security while coordinating with untested Iraqi leaders and armed forces.
Nevertheless, the United States and its British, Polish and other allies are right to formally turn control of Iraq back to Iraqis. The occupier label proved poisonous for allied troops, and many Iraqis saw little reason to fight against terrorists or insurgents when they felt as though they were fighting for U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer. Iraq's new leaders believe that Iraqi forces will now fight harder when it is clearly for their own country and on orders from their countrymen.
One among many dangers is unrealistic expectations. Initial polls suggest that Iraq's government takes office with a reservoir of some goodwill. But Iraqis who expected the U.S. occupation to quickly bring order and improve their lives were disappointed; now they may hope that the new government will deliver where the Americans failed. But Iraqi forces are far too scanty, ill-equipped and untrained to take over. And American forces, already stretched thin, must now take on a training mission as a priority even as they continue to fight the insurgency. It would help if U.S. aid, already appropriated, would begin flowing more quickly -- and to Iraqis, not just to U.S. and other foreign contractors. It would help also if NATO allies and other nations that have refused to contribute to the war now assisted in training and maybe in guarding borders and other missions. But even if Iraq wins new help, it is a long way from being able to secure itself.
For U.S. troops there's a three-pronged challenge: fight a war, while receding in visibility, while assuring Iraqi allies (and persuading foes) that the Americans won't be leaving too soon. The latter goal is aided by Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, who has responsibly joined with President Bush in refusing to set an arbitrary date for U.S. withdrawal. "Success is a secure, peaceful and pluralistic Iraq," said former national security adviser Samuel K. "Sandy" Berger, who is advising Mr. Kerry, and the United States cannot settle for anything less. "We cannot think about dates or elections as barometers," agreed former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, also speaking for the Kerry campaign last week. "There are real things that need to be done."