Give Iraqis Running Room

So the handover of limited sovereignty to Iraqis didn't happen on June 30, as promised.

Instead, the preemptive transfer of power was secretly held two days early to steal the thunder from any terrorist plans for dramatic attacks on Wednesday.

But this surprise - and notably, peaceful - transfer also showed that the United States and the new Iraqi government have learned a key tactic in bringing stability and pluralism to Iraq: smart improvisation - including making contrite reversals of bad decisions.

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Planning was not the forte of the US occupation, and many of those plans that did take shape, such as the dismissal of Saddam Hussein's army and Baathist civil servants, went awry. That particular decision caused an unnecessary breakdown in security and services.

Now the test for success in rebuilding and democratizing Iraq lies in recovering from such miscues. And that task falls largely on the shoulders of Iyad Allawi, prime minister of the interim government.

The toughest task for Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite who's a former Baathist and intelligence operative, is to show he can make Iraq more secure. If he achieves that in the next few months, he'll win legitimacy and make the country safe for elections in January.

And the US, even though it still commands 130,000 troops in Iraq, can help him win that legitimacy by not second-guessing his moves.

Having ousted Mr. Hussein and laid the foundation for representative government, free media, and a market economy, and basic services such as schools, the US needs to let the Allawi regime take on an Iraqi character and make its mistakes, even if they might look bad for President Bush before the US election in November.

The new government may mishandle its proffered amnesty for militants, or impose onerous martial law, or mess up the trial of Saddam Hussein. It may not quickly form an able Iraqi Army or quell all ethnic or religious divisions.

But as the US learned during the past 15 months, the grand purpose of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq provides an underpinning of strength to move past one's mistakes and start afresh.

Iraqis can sense that deeper direction and the terrorists' attempts to stop it, or possibly use Iraq as a base for Al Qaeda. They can be patient and forgiving through it all. At the least, they can admire the courage of Iraqis like Allawi who risk their lives to serve in government.

Allawi already has the backing of the UN, other Arab states and Iran, and the religious leader of Iraq's majority Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. As he displays his independence from the US, the US can respond by starting discussions for drawing down American forces.

The zigzag, improvised actions in Iraq have, and will, be difficult. But the overall momentum toward a free, stable nation can be sustained.

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