GLIMMERS OF hope can be found amid the chaos preceding Wednesday's formal transfer of sovereignty in Iraq.
Iraqi officials are already in charge of all 25 government ministries, running -- with the help of about 200 U.S. and British consultants -- a bureaucracy of more than a million workers.
Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister taking over from occupation leader L. Paul Bremer III, is presenting to his nation a face of amazing courage, refusing to be intimidated by the price on his head and the brutal violence around him.
Most important, there is a palpable yearning among the Iraqi people for a free and stable society that gives reason to believe the journey their leaders are about to begin could eventually lead them there.
It's ordinary Iraqis who will make the crucial difference over the next months and years -- their patience, their tolerance, their refusal to yield to insurgents and terrorists, their willingness to give their new government a chance.
But the odds are daunting.
Essential services such as clean water and power are still lacking, jobs are few and even with U.S.-led coalition troops still in place, many Iraqis are utterly without physical security. In fact, most of the insurgent attacks have been aimed at fledgling Iraqi security forces, who are far too few and hopelessly undertrained for the task.
Lawmakers who visited the region say U.S. forces will have to remain at the same strength or greater through at least the end of next year to provide enough stability for Iraq to hold elections and begin to acquire the capacity to truly govern on its own.
Indications are that Americans have already grown weary of the burden; that's one of the reasons President Bush wanted at least a symbolic transfer of power well before the November elections.
Like the Iraqis, though, the United States doesn't have the luxury of giving up. Mr. Bush may have been baited into the conflict and the American people duped, but to surrender Iraq now to a radical insurgency would threaten moderate forces throughout the Middle East.
By all estimates, the violence will get worse before it gets better, because the insurgents know this is a key moment to undermine Iraqi confidence in the new government. Mr. Allawi has said he is determined not to impose martial law and thus deprive his fellow citizens of freedoms that so far have been the chief positive legacy of the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Yet his plans for "emergency measures" in particularly lawless areas could come perilously close to martial law and put U.S. forces in the awkward spot of helping to enforce it -- or refusing to.
The delicacy of this calculation is hard to overstate. Some measure of calm is critical, yet if Mr. Allawi cracks down too hard on his fellow citizens in pursuit of order, he runs the risk of stifling that tiny glimmer of hope on which Iraq's future rests.