As the US reviews the results of Iraq's national elections, it may be hearing the adage, "Be careful what you wish for."
The US wanted to hand down a democracy to the Iraqi people, and in key respects these elections delivered in a big way. With no overriding majority resulting from the vote, Iraq's political leaders will have to practice the democratic arts of negotiation and compromise as they form a new government and move on to the writing of a new constitution.
That portends both good things and bad for the US. On the one hand, any abrupt move to an extreme - say, an Iranian-style theocracy - appears unlikely. Opponents like the Kurds, who made a strong second-place showing in the vote, appear to have the means to put a check on that possibility.
But at the same time, negotiations are expected to be slow, and whatever government is formed could be weak.
And that could hearten the insurgency, tempt Iraq's neighbors to meddle more, and make the government less responsive to the Iraqi people in the areas where they are interested in seeing fast improvement, such as services and the economy.
The result is that the US role in Iraq, while it may change, is not likely to be any less intense in the months to come. "This [the Bush] administration is not unhappy with these election results, but they do present new challenges and portend a different role for the US in the future," says Carole O'Leary, an Iraq specialist and expert in Kurdish affairs at American University in Washington.
One thing the elections have done is raised the hopes of ethnic groups within Iraq, she notes, and raised ethnic and sectarian fears in the region. This is seen, in particular, in the increasing focus of the region's Sunni Arabs on the rise of a Shiite-dominated Iraq.
"The Bush administration has had its hands so full with the insurgency that it has dropped the ball on some of these more esoteric issues," says Professor O'Leary. "Now they're going to have to focus on the side of these cultural complexities quite a bit more."
At the same time, however, the US is likely to find itself even more crucial to Iraq's reconstruction, since Iraqi leaders will be focused on forming a government and writing a constitution.
"It will be critical that the US focus over the next few months on helping this government produce results," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq expert now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's only realistic to anticipate a certain amount of chaos at the government level, as leadership positions are negotiated and the constitution becomes the focus," he says. "So the US will have to really be proactive in helping the government bring the water and electricity and other services that will be what the Iraqi people use to judge the merits of the whole process."
Iraq's Shiite parties won the Jan. 30 election, but with less of a margin than anticipated, pulling in around 48 percent of the vote. Kurdish parties did better than anticipated, while the secular list led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi fell far behind. All of this means that no group has enough seats in the new parliament to form a government on its own.
Still, the new prime minister is expected to be Shiite, while the Kurds are expected to demand the presidential spot.
Yet despite some speculation that a Shiite-led government, presumably with close ties to Iran, will be viewed in Washington as opposing US interests, some experts say the outcome is no shock to the administration and is viewed as something the US can work with.
Some observers believe the US was pulling for Mr. Allawi and note the high profile the prime minister was given in visits to the White House.
But other sources note that President Bush spent more one-on-one time with Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is from the largest organization within the top-vote-getting United Iraqi Alliance and likely to be named the next prime minister.
Mr. Mahdi was living in exile in Iran prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, but O'Leary notes that he has made a meandering political transition not unlike that of many Iraqi leaders - in his case from communism to Baathism to Islamism. "His so-called 'most pro-Iran party' is really ethnically diverse, so I don't think we should limit it with the shorthand of 'linked to Iran,' " she says.
O'Leary and others say the "link to Iran" can actually prove helpful, since it will provide a conduit for US messages to Tehran, whether addressing regional interests in Iraq or Iran's nuclear program.
Mr. Barkey says the US will also have a key role to play in addressing Turkey's concerns about Iraq. The Turkish government should in fact be pleased with the election results, "since they came off without chaos," he says, "but in fact they are not."
Turkey's primary interest is a stable and unified Iraq and to the extent the selection of a Kurdish president makes those goals more realistic, the Turks "should really be supportive of that outcome," Barkey says. "It's up to the US to help them see that."
As for the constitutional process, Barkey says it's important that Iraqis see it as carried out by and for Iraqis. "The US should not have any fingerprints on the constitution," he says.
The trick, he says, will be to provide experts on constitution-writing, as organizations like the US Institute of Peace are already doing, without it appearing to be an American-influenced project.