When an established democracy like the United States still has trouble with credible vote counts, it's worth remaining a bit humble in judging this Sunday's election in Iraq. Ongoing violence there - or even more the threat of violence - against those supporting democracy, provides a daunting challenge to achieving a credible vote. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.
Yet a relatively fair election with high turnout is needed to help foster a government legitimate enough to command a respected military. Only then can the insurgent violence be curbed and America's 150,000 soldiers go home.
In the past few days, the election process has begun to act like a giant magnet, aligning political forces in favor of secular democracy while pushing many terrorist leaders and others to reveal their intentions as Islamic extremists opposed to democracy.
Many leaders of Iraq's Arab Sunni minority who fear the election might create a dominant Shiite government have softened their stance against the vote. They've been helped by both secular and religious Shiites who - finally - say they oppose a Shiite theocracy like that in Iran, and who promise adequate Sunni representation in writing a constitution and running government.
Such hopeful statements reveal an underlying Iraqi nationalism that, in the end, might triumph over the religious, ethnic, and tribal divides of a nation with no real history of democracy. Another, more subtle triumph would be an Iraqi recognition that - by rejecting the Iranian model of clerics claiming holy superiority over daily life without the will of the people - each individual holds an inherent right to self-determination, and that the best way to preserve that right is through democracy.
It's that enlightened view that the main terrorist in Iraq, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, clearly rejected this week in a statement. Now, at least, both Sunni and Shiite know what a clear choice they have in this election.
US actions - or rather nonactions - in the election are important, too. To prevent the perception that Americans might be rigging the vote, US forces plan to stay far away from the 6,000 voting areas on Jan. 30.
Iraq's interim government, too, needs to be above suspicion in managing the vote. It doesn't do itself credit, however, with reports that its security forces are committing systematic torture of detainees.
Troubled as it might be, this election should help bring needed clarity and perhaps hope for Iraq's future.