Iraq's parliamentary elections may well be a make-or-break point for President Bush's troubled postwar rebuilding policy, about which he has finally conceded there were errors and miscalculations.
Thursday's vote is the last step in the political process that the U.S.-led coalition laid down in the summer of 2003 — an interim government under an interim constitution leading up to three votes this year: the January election of a parliament to draft a constitution; the ratification of that constitution in October; and, on Thursday, the election of a 275-member parliament to govern the country for the next four years.
The trouble with other people's democracies is that they don't always elect the candidates we want, and, indeed, when the Iraqis did get to vote last January they threw out the United States' handpicked interim prime minister.
Running for office is a lively mix of coalitions and parties, heavily oriented along religious and ethnic lines. Fifteen million Iraqis, out of a population of 27 million, are registered to vote, indicating that there's a real market for democracy. Five groups of Islamic extremists, including the local wing of al Qaeda, have denounced the election as "satanic." But, in contrast to the previous votes, the extremists have not threatened to try to stop this one — probably because their earlier experience shows that they can't.
The election will be a success if it is seen to be fair; there is widespread participation, especially among Sunnis; and there is a general and willing acceptance of the results.
Depending on how the new government holds up, the Pentagon is planning to withdraw the 22,000 extra troops sent in for the election and may even start drawing down the 138,000 baseline force.
U.S. policy has always been that if a duly constituted, freely elected Iraqi government asked us to leave, we would pack up and go. Understandably, Bush would like to see that day come before he leaves office. That's why this election is so important: There is no Plan B.