SALT LAKE CITY — Years ago, during the Vietnam War, I spent some time in the Mekong Delta with a South Vietnamese infantry company. Frankly, left to their own devices, they wouldn't have been very good soldiers. The kind of soldiers, for instance, who light up cigarettes on night patrol. They were unwilling conscripts, not too enthusiastic about sloshing around in the rice paddies and getting shot at by the Viet Cong.
They had professional South Vietnamese Army officers in command, but more significantly, four battle-hardened US rangers assigned to the company as "advisers." Though US helicopters, if available, could be called in for fire support, the advisers were miles from any other American units: No fortified US base to live in; no armored vehicles to shelter in. They ate what the Vietnamese troops ate, lived where they lived, and slept and fought alongside them.
Working with the company's officers, speaking some Vietnamese, the Americans had infused the unit with purpose, pride, and spirit - turning it into a more effective force. Though the area they operated in could hardly be called "pacified," it had been made safe enough that we could walk down to the local village at night, where the rangers could eat and drink with villagers and the headman, and where curious little boys, familiar with smooth-skinned arms, could pluck the hairs from ours.
It is trainers like these, US or other, embedded in the nascent Iraqi security units being formed, with some understanding of the culture and language, that Iraq is going to need if it is to be buttressed against the antidemocracy terrorists. They may have just suffered a defeat in Sunday's elections but are unlikely to abandon their murderous crusade. Regular US units will still be needed in Iraq for some time, not the least to protect key installations and the 275 members just elected to the interim national assembly, and their families. It was embedding, even by young US soldiers without the language or much cultural sensitivity, that stiffened the Iraqi security forces as they protected the millions of Iraqis who braved threats of beheadings and voted on Sunday.
Their action was a remarkable example of Iraqi resolve and a rebuke to the naysayers who doubted that an Islamic people in the heart of the Middle East could seize the opportunity to reach for freedom. It is doubtful that the ripples from this event, coupled with democratic elections in Palestine, and promising developments in the longstanding impasse between Palestinians and Israelis, can leave other countries in the region totally unaffected.
But there should also be no underestimating the challenges still ahead for Iraq. The interim assembly must devise a constitution that will satisfy the Sunni and Kurdish minorities as well as the Shiite majority, which has so far exhibited sophistication in dealing with these minorities.
The meddlesome pressures on Iraq's politics from neighboring Iran must be resisted.
While Iraqis are trying to establish an accord between their diverse factions which would try the political and diplomatic skills of any nation, there looms over them the threat of disruption and assassination from foreign terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his assorted followers who seek to sabotage the process. That is why the need for a continuing US military and training presence is essential until a new and credible Iraqi leadership deems it no longer necessary.
It would be craven to desert the Iraqis in their hour of need. It would be an insult to the American heroes who have sacrificed life and limb to bring the Iraqis this far.
What the Iraqis sorely need, in addition to security while they work out their political problems, is a good hefty dose of reconstruction aid. Repairing broken sewers, getting clean water to flow, and restoring electricity to homes and factories again will do much to restore stability and hope. Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware is right to keep nagging the Bush administration to disburse more quickly the funds that Congress has voted for such purposes.
It isn't unreasonable that nations like France and Germany that have carped at America's military intervention in Iraq should now engage vigorously in rebuilding that country. That wouldn't be an endorsement of the Bush administration's policies, but a declaration of support for the Iraqi people's quest for stability and democracy. Worldwide contributions from countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia and China and Russia would similarly be appropriate.
It's time for them to step up.
It's a new day in Iraq.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.