Last Friday, as John Kerry was making a promise to withdraw most US forces from Iraq within a year, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit was engaged in hand-to-hand combat against hundreds of black-clothed Shiite militiamen in the holy city of Najaf.
The fighting was the fiercest in months, and a vivid reminder that either a President Kerry or a new Bush administration will face as many uncertainties as certainties in helping Iraq create a secure, elected government.
Tellingly, this latest violence, which was triggered by the army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was aimed more at disrupting the interim regime of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi than at ousting US forces. In fact, the Marines did not enter the battle for Najaf until both Iraqi police and guardsmen had put up a fight and then put out a call for US assistance.
This shows the political context for security in post-Hussein Iraq has shifted. The most significant change was the June 28 handover of limited sovereignty to Dr. Allawi's government and a new chain of command with the US military largely reporting to Iraqis.
Both Allawi and the US took a risk in confronting Mr. Sadr's militia on Najaf's holy ground. The fighting could either rile Iraq's majority Shiite or be widely seen as Allawi bringing the kind of security that Iraqis want.
Allawi probably knows better than the Americans did during their 13-month rule how to develop a consensus, which is essential to quell violence. The ultimate solution will be elections, which would help channel Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions into political rather than armed struggle. With elections slated for January, Allawi has scrambled to show he's in charge and acting with whatever legitimacy he can muster as a UN and US appointee.
After last week's fighting, he offered a 30-day amnesty period for Iraqis who turn themselves in for "minor crimes," or who failed to reveal violent plots or shelter insurgents. He also closed the offices of Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera for a month for allegedly inciting violence by slanting its coverage.
The international context for Iraq's security has also shifted. On Saturday, NATO sent in its first batch of officers to help train Iraqi forces. Hundreds more could be in Iraq this fall. This adds to the government's legitimacy and widens the coalition for the US. And this week, the UN plans to reestablish itself in Iraq with a team that will help prepare for a national political assembly and elections.
Such steps bring hope that Iraq can reduce its physical insecurity with increasing political security in the months ahead. Insurgents may get more desperate as they lose this larger battle. But for now, the drive for democracy seems rooted in Iraq.