FINALLY, something good has come out of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The images of the old, the young and the lame going to vote in Iraq and elsewhere in the world were the most encouraging of any in the Iraqi experience since America shocked and awed that land nearly two years ago.
They were more encouraging than the image of Saddam Hussein's statue being hauled down by American soldiers in Baghdad, more encouraging than the arrest of Mr. Hussein and decidedly more impressive than President Bush's premature declaration that the mission in Iraq was accomplished.
Here we saw, really for the first time, common Iraqi citizens participating in an act of self-determination about their future. Would this have happened without the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Probably not. But would it have happened without shutting down and sealing up the entire country and putting an overwhelming force in the streets of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra? I think not.
For one day, Iraq was secure enough for a true exercise in democracy. Security is a relative thing in Iraq, of course. At least 35 people were killed by insurgent terrorists on Election Day. That's not counting the nine bombers who were killed in the process.
This election -- marvelous and unprecedented as it was -- was only the first step in a long process of genuine democratization. Yet to come are the creation of a constitution by the men and women elected Sunday, a referendum on the constitution and then yet another election using the new constitution as a framework.
All of this is scheduled to happen within 11 months of today. If the U.S.-led coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces they are training could simply shut down the country for the rest of the year, as they did during the election, Iraq might beat back the insurgency and emerge with a real hope of survival. But it cannot be done that way.
More likely, the time between now and December will see more murder and mayhem. All the while, the pressure will mount on Mr. Bush to develop a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The president needs to find a way to get us out of Iraq without leaving that country in a more dangerous condition than when we arrived.
One of the first things he did after yesterday's vote in Iraq was not encouraging. The president reportedly called three top allies in the region: President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Of all the people Mr. Bush could have called to celebrate a democratic moment, those three were probably the worst choices. They are all essentially dictators, especially the Saudi royal family and Mr. Mubarak's regime, which bear much responsibility for the dim view of America in the Islamic world.
Are they the ones who are going to help us nurture democracy in Iraq?
The people Mr. Bush should be addressing are the citizens of Iraq, the people who had the courage to go out and vote. And his message needs to be something better than "we will support the Iraqi people in their fight" against terrorist insurgents. He needs to reassure the Shiites that their position as the majority population will not be diminished, the Sunnis that they will have a significant role to play and the Kurds that they will be free in their land. And he needs to reassure them all, and the rest of the world, that this wasn't all about Iraq's most valuable resource -- oil, and the industrialized world's insatiable appetite for it.
Another people need to be reassured, too. The American people need to be reassured that somehow the ends have justified the means in this adventure undertaken for constantly changing reasons. Democracy in Iraq was not the reason given for going to war there, but it's the only reason left for being there. If this fatally-flawed experiment doesn't work, the consequences will be far worse, for Mr. Bush will have created a new quarter for America's enemies, closer by, and with greater resources.
G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun.