In the West African city of Accra on a steamy night in 1957, I was in the government buildings as the clock ticked steadily toward midnight. At that hour, the British colony of Gold Coast would become the sovereign nation of Ghana. Africans whooped as the time grew nearer, shouting "Free-DOM, free-DOM, free-DOM," at white British colonial officers who would soon be departing. The British shouted back "And justice, justice, justice."
It was a vignette that captured the Africans' jubilation and hope for democracy, and the Britons' skepticism that Africans could make it work in an orderly way.
Ghana led a process that transformed black Africa from a continent under the colonial rule of the British, French, Belgians, and Portuguese to a string of sovereign nations.
Over the years I've witnessed a succession of other lands winning freedom in the face of adversity: Kenya after the Mau Mau; South Africa after apartheid; Malaysia after a terrorist insurrection; the Philippines after Marcos; Indonesia after Sukarno; the Soviet bloc after communist tyranny. Just as the departing Britons doubted Ghanaians' ability to govern wisely, there've been doubts and skepticism, and certainly the transitions have not always been tidy. There have been pitfalls and sometimes ugly periods of civil strife and bloodshed as such nations found their way. But mankind's desire for liberty is a powerful force, and the collective reach for democracy is unstoppable. It may take time to come to fruition, as in China, but it's inevitable.
So now, with this week's handover from the US command that liberated and occupied it, to an interim government of its own, it's Iraq's turn. With the transition comes the opportunity to make the process messy or successful. If the process in Iraq stalls, the world will not come to an end. But it would have dramatically negative consequences for the rest of the Arab world, for which Iraq could become a beckoning example of democratic order and economic progress.
The obstacles in the path of the emerging Iraqi regime are daunting. The interim government must convene a national advisory council of about a thousand prominent Iraqis. Then come national elections in January to choose a transition government. That government must convene a national convention to draft a constitution that would be put to the voters in October 2005. Iraqis would then face another election in December 2005 for a constitutionally based government.
All this must take place in the face of possible meddling from Iran, the threat of Kurdish secession in the north, tension between Sunnis and Shiites, and an onslaught of violence from Islamic extremists and terrorists who fear their destructive cause will shrivel with the advance of democracy and order.
But Iraq is not without assets. Its people are talented; it is rich in oil, which can finance reconstruction and development. Though police stations are special targets of insurgents, Iraq's law-enforcement structure is being rebuilt, and thousands of recruits are emerging from police training schools. A new army is in the making. Nevertheless, Iraq will need help to restore security and rebuild infrastructure that suffered years of neglect under Saddam Hussein and the ravages of war.
The world has an obligation to assist. Countries that opposed the US-led war were entitled to their view, but failure to help with the peace would be a travesty. A welcome sign at the weekend was the European Union's pledge of "full and sustained support" for Iraq, including military equipment and training. NATO gave initial approval of the training program. Islamic countries could provide Muslim peacekeepers. Japan could provide economic aid.
For the immediate future, the US role in Iraq will be critical. Though troops from other nations may trickle in, the US military, by its very size, firepower, and technological superiority will be key in maintaining security. But politically, the US must be self-effacing, sensitive to the assumption of a clear Iraqi face by the new government as it assumes sovereignty.
If the posthandover period will demand courage and endurance on the part of Iraqis, it will require a delicate balance of continuing military commitment and immense diplomatic skill on the part of the US.
• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.