The next step

It’s impossible not to admire the courage of the millions of Iraqis who defied death to vote Sunday. They sent a powerful message that, after nearly four decades of life under the sadistic thumb of Saddam Hussein and despite the unpredictable terrorism of the insurgency, the people of Iraq are ready to enter the mainstream of modern life.

The practical results of the election won’t be known until the ballots are counted, of course. It’s quite possible that the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s United Iraqi Alliance garnered the majority of votes. If so, it won’t be long before Iraq’s new leaders will ask the Americans to begin pulling out troops. They will want their country back as soon as possible.

The Bush administration may not get what it really wanted out of this monumental endeavor: a pliant ally that welcomes military bases on its soil and exploitation of its vast oil reserves. If it intends to be true to its latest rationale for invading Iraq, however, and foster democracy and freedom, it will have no choice but to support the new government, even if it turns out to be more Islamist than the administration might like.

The phrase everybody is using here is "first step." Iraq’s transition to normalcy has a long way to go. Democracy is still an unknown quantity, the country’s infrastructure is a mess, terrorists are everywhere and the country is factionalized among three major groups with starkly different agendas. At some point, though, and sooner rather than later, the United States will have to step aside.