WASHINGTON - There was a nice little story out of Iraq the other day. An Irish businessman sent his private jet to Baghdad where it picked up eight Iraqi mentally handicapped athletes who wanted to take part in the Special Olympics, which open this week in Ireland. What makes the story even more poignant is that Saddam Hussein's twisted son Odai had been the head of Iraq's regular Olympic Committee, and was known for torturing Iraqi Olympic athletes who did not perform well.
At the Special Olympics, everyone counts, and everyone is a winner, just for trying. In the old Iraq it was dangerous to be an Olympic athlete if you did not win. Will it be possible to create a new Iraq where it is safe to be a Special Olympics athlete, where it is safe to be vulnerable?
It's too soon to tell. Indeed, it is too soon to tell anything conclusive about Iraq. In a fluid situation like this, there are 10 things happening every day. All you want is that six out of the 10 be positive, and moving upward - unlike Afghanistan, where only three out of 10 are positive, and moving downward. Right now, talking to U.S. officials, I'd say the score in Iraq is about five to five.
On the positive side, street life is coming back all over, restaurants and shops are reopening, Baghdad is getting about 18 hours of electricity now and gasoline lines, a mile long four weeks ago when I was last in Iraq, are now virtually gone. Security has improved, but it still has a long way to go. Schools have been operating. Newspapers are exploding, and political parties are forming.
The regional news is also net positive. The student uprising in Iran, the stutter-step movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the ferment within Saudi Arabia, Tuesday's elections in Jordan - all are trends that were enhanced by the downfall of Mr. Hussein's regime. Far from the Arab street, or press, rising against the United States, the Arab media are replete with introspection and even self-criticism of how the Arab world mishandled Mr. Hussein.
On the negative side are two huge unresolved issues. Contrary to the blather of the Bush team, we have not finished the war, and we have yet to establish an interim Iraqi political authority that can eventually work together to govern Iraq - instead of Mr. Hussein's iron fist or ours.
The war ended too soon. Because there was no battle for Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit and the other Sunni Muslim strongholds that were the base of Mr. Hussein's power, many elements of Mr. Hussein's regime and two divisions of Republican Guards just melted into the woodwork - instead of being killed or captured. (There are also disturbing signs lately that the Iraqi Sunnis, who have dominated Iraq forever and are not eager to see Iraqi Shiites rule, are recruiting Sunni Arab fighters from around the region, particularly from Wahhabi groups in Saudi Arabia, to join the battle against the United States.)
The Sunni Hussein loyalists have reconstituted themselves as the "Party of Return," and the message they have been sending around Iraq is that Mr. Hussein is coming back - and when he does he will cut out the tongue of anyone who supported America. This has frozen many Iraqis, which is why the war has to be finished and Saddam & Sons brought in dead or dead. Right now we need to find Mr. Hussein much more than his nukes.
And this leads to the challenge for L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. official in Iraq, who's off to a good start. Can the United States, working with Iraqis, pull together a moderate, legitimate political center that will bring Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other Iraqi factions into some kind of self-sustaining governing coalition?
The plan is for Mr. Bremer, by July, to form a "political council" of Iraqis that will serve as a shadow Cabinet, appoint Iraqi interim ministers, and oversee the writing of a new constitution, educational reform, legal reform and privatization. This needs to happen soon. People in Iraq need to feel self-government taking hold. It will make America's stay much easier.
If you see Iraqis starting to work together in a centrist coalition, and security being consolidated by a rebuilt Iraqi police force, then you can be just a little bit optimistic. If you don't see that happening, you can start worrying.
If I were President Bush, though, and my political life depended on Iraq being a success, I would already be worrying. I would have double the number of U.S. troops there and be throwing so much food and investment into Iraq that people there would think they had won the jackpot. Why the president is not doing that beats me, and it could end up beating him.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.