Judging Iraq on its own terms

Measuring US progress in Iraq has long been an art. Some see strokes of genius, such as Saddam Hussein's capture. Others see a splatter of gaffes, such as Abu Ghraib. But will such judgments change now that Iraq has an elected government?

The Bush administration's ideal in the 2003 invasion was to leave Iraq with a democracy that both reflected and stabilized Iraq society, and which might inspire terrorist-harboring Middle East nations to follow suit. The Pentagon has admitted it made mistakes in Iraq, costing President Bush support at home. But on Saturday, a political threshold was reached in Iraq: A duly elected legislature approved a governing cabinet that will operate the first full-term government under a popularly chosen Constitution with most major parties well represented - quite a feat, despite all its flaws.

Now, like a child who has reached the legal age of majority, Iraq's government must make choices and be held accountable, even if its military and police still cannot yet operate without foreign assistance and even if militants have been killing many Iraqi civilians. With full elected authority comes total official responsibility.

This democratic sovereignty has given Iraqis the very freedom the US sought, but also the freedom to set the terms of success. While the US provided the paint and canvas, Iraq has created its own picture. From here on, the new government can tell the US what to do in its country and tell the world what it stands for. It can restrict democracy, or simply fail.

Judging Iraq can now be based on its goals. It can decide when to hang up a "mission accomplished" banner.

Some may see Iraq's leaders as puppets, unable to rule without American security and thus unable to say no to US demands. Yet many nations rely on US security as well as its economic means while their leaders buck Washington. Iraq's parties took five months to form a government after January's election despite US pressure; more such independence can be expected. The US should encourage that by keeping its distance.

What then does Iraq's government stand for? Prime Minister Nouri Maliki al-Maliki says he wants to unify the 25 million Iraqis against the insurgency and use "maximum force against the terrorists." That means he must disarm private militias, improve the armed forces to allow foreign troops to withdraw, and review the Constitution to consider giving more power and oil wealth to Sunnis. He told visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday that he wants to take responsibility for most of Iraq's territorial security by December. If he cannot move on those goals, he may merely remain a leader ruling over sectarian fiefdoms backed by secret armed groups.

A weak, barely unified but democratic Iraq may be just what the world sees for some time. This wobbly regime may at times be split among ministers from different parties who use their posts to benefit supporters and help their militias.

That may not be what the Iraqis wished for. But it is theirs to correct.

The US and its allies have played midwife and lately nanny to a democratic Iraq. Their duties are ending.

Iraq's government, by reaching the age of political maturity, will rise or fall - and be judged - based mainly on its choices.

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