An upsurge of violence in Iraq shows more vividly than ever that the US and its allies are not really waging war against gunmen, bombers, and kidnappers but fighting a political battle for legitimacy.
And right now the legitimacy of the US plan to implant an Iraq democracy hangs less on an increase in US forces or the number of militants in Sunni Fallujah and Shiite Najaf than on the shuttle diplomacy of UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
For days, the respected former foreign minister of Algeria, who's a Sunni Muslim, has been visiting various Iraqi leaders in hopes of creating a consensus over who will run Iraq after the US hands over sovereignty June 30.
President Bush turned to the UN for this task after it was clear the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which consists mainly of former exiles, is not well received by Iraqis.
Broadening the council's membership beyond 25 to include more acceptable Iraqis seems the best option for a temporary government until elections can be held, possibly by January. The US can win a big legitimacy battle by having the UN (and a Muslim) recommend the new members.
It's not for lack of trying that the UN and Mr. Bush have taken so long to find common ground. The UN lost 22 of its workers to a suicide blast in Baghdad and is reluctant to assume much responsibility on the ground. Iraqis, too, distrust the UN because of the misuse of the oil-for-food program under Saddam Hussein. And the US is reluctant to let its military answer to a UN civilian ruler. Such concerns put a restraint on "internationalizing the occupation," as John Kerry calls for.
Rather, the task from the beginning has to be finding enough Iraqis willing to risk their lives - in a new army or government - for a democracy that rises above ethnicity or religion. The US didn't prepare for that task well before the war, and made mistakes early in the occupation. Getting it right quickly, with Brahimi's help, isn't impossible. But with June 30 looming, Iraq is suffering a jockeying for power among Iraqis and active resistance to democracy from terrorists.
Yet Secretary of State Colin Powell is already looking beyond the handover. He told a Senate committee last week that "if the interim government starts to move in a way that is totally inconsistent with democracy or starts to create a theocracy or take away the rights from people, then we have a very brand new and difficult situation." But with billions in reconstruction aid, a UN role in elections, and a joint US-Iraq military under US command, the interim government probably won't become undemocratic.
But first, Mr. Brahimi must find a few good Iraqis willing to lead.