THE FIRST month of sovereign government in Iraq ended badly. A national conference that was to choose a 100-member assembly to function alongside the interim government was postponed for two weeks because key factions refused to participate. A car bombing that killed 70 people and a rash of kidnappings, meanwhile, underlined the fact that security remains a crippling problem. Those in Washington who believe that Iraq is headed for disaster will find confirmation in these events, and they may be proven right. Yet woven through the broader record of the past 30 days are signs that the formal end of the U.S. occupation may have advanced Iraq closer to the goal of stability under a representative government.
One such indication is the emergence of Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, as a relatively strong and shrewd leader. Unlike the hydra-headed Iraqi Governing Council before him, Mr. Allawi has offered the country a commanding presence, and he has acted as aggressively as his limited resources probably allow. Criminals and some insurgents have been swiftly rounded up by the new government's police and security forces; meanwhile, Mr. Allawi has been working behind the scenes to broker deals with anti-government forces. His decision to reopen the newspaper of Shiite militant Moqtada Sadr, who led a bloody rebellion against the occupation authority in the spring, was bold and politically astute. Some detect in him the authoritarian leanings of a traditional Arab strongman. So far, however, the danger that Mr. Allawi would, or could, adopt that course seems small.
The new prime minister and his team have made some headway in winning the domestic and international support they desperately need. Saudi Arabia's appeal on Thursday to Muslim nations to provide troops for peacekeeping could signal a breakthrough, at least in political terms; on Friday, NATO finally agreed on the deployment of a training mission. Most important, several surveys and polls have shown that Iraqis are more sanguine about their situation than most outsiders, and they want to believe that the new government and planned transition to democracy will succeed. After researchers with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies interviewed more than 700 Iraqis, the think tank reported Friday that while most Iraqis "have not yet realized gains in their personal lives," most believe that events are headed in the right direction, and they cling to a " 'skeptical optimism.' "
To maintain this modest momentum and withstand the forces tugging in the direction of chaos, the Iraqi administration will need an acceleration of international support in the coming weeks. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pointed to one key task for the United States in a visit to Baghdad Friday, promising a faster flow of the billions in development aid approved by Congress eight months ago. Delivery on that inexcusably delayed pledge is essential. Arab and European nations must decide whether they want a stable Iraq; if so, now is the time to deliver troops for peacekeeping as well as development aid.
Finally, the United Nations -- identified by all, including the Bush administration, as the key to brokering a political transition -- must step up to the job. Its representatives in Iraq see fit to publicly critique the plans for a national assembly, perhaps with good reason, but Secretary General Kofi Annan still declines to dispatch a mission large enough to help Iraqis overcome the problems. The security force to protect the U.N. staff, sought by Mr. Annan and approved by the Security Council, should be quickly formed. If those nations that for so long have insisted on a leading U.N. role in Iraq won't provide the troops for it, the United States should fill the gap.