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It's Iraq for the Iraqis now

Iraq is the country that refuses to die: Saddam Hussein tried to break his people by torture and poison gas, but he failed. America arrogantly mismanaged the first years of its occupation and nearly triggered a civil war, but the Iraqis held on. Iran tried to choke its neighbor, assassinating Iraqis it didn't like and bribing the country's politicians. Somehow, the Iraqi nation not only survived these catastrophes, but is becoming the Middle East's most freewheeling democracy.

This month's election shouldn't be seen as a victory celebration, least of all by the United States. There's more pain and violence ahead, and there will be moments when analysts will be wondering anew if Iraq can hold together.

But at least the country truly belongs to its people now. The politicians of the new Iraq are a mercurial, conniving and sometimes corrupt crew. But they're Iraqis, and arguably that's the only thing that really matters.

Iraq's resilience -- its sheer, stubborn staying power -- can be seen in three images of a Sunni politician named Qassim Mohammed Fahdawi, who is the governor of Anbar province. When I met him in Ramadi in December, he was pitching a group of visiting Americans about investment opportunities in Anbar, handing out a glossy supplement that had been printed by the Financial Times. Just three years before, this had been al-Qaida's home base in Iraq, and now he was talking bond guarantees.

It sounded too good to last, and it was: On Dec. 30, Fahdawi was badly injured in an al-Qaida suicide attack at the very compound where he had been making his investment pitch two weeks before. About 30 people were killed and dozens more wounded.

The third snapshot comes in the run-up to Election Day. Fahdawi defied doctors' orders and returned in a wheelchair to Ramadi, after leg surgery and the amputation of his arm, to urge his fellow Sunnis to vote.

If toughness were enough, Iraq would be the greatest country on earth. But the hard, stoical qualities that help the Iraqis survive sometimes prevent them from making the compromises and deals that are necessary for effective governance.

The best thing about Sunday's election, judging from early results, is that no party won so big that it can form a government on its own. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition (improbably called "State of Law") will dicker with the Shiite religious party headed by Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, which will bargain simultaneously with the secular party headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. And everyone will be trying to woo the Kurds.

This will be democracy Iraq-style, something closer to a day spent haggling in the souk than a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

I called Allawi in Baghdad to get a sense of how the political horse-trading will proceed. All the candidates are bartering for votes, but Allawi's contacts are typical: He said he is talking with Jawad Bolani, the Shiite interior minister; Sheik Ahmed Abu-Risha, the head of the Sunni Awakening movement; Abdul Mahdi, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq; Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani; and followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Allawi offered to negotiate with Maliki, too, if he backs a nonsectarian government.

Allawi hopes a government can be formed late this month or early next. Few others are that optimistic. They worry about a protracted period of political bargaining and a power vacuum in Baghdad that allows a new round of sectarian fighting. Preventing this downward spiral is the challenge for Maliki and the others. But it's their country now, to make or break.
In the darkest days of the Iraq War, it was tempting for Americans to think that we could walk away from the mess we had created. Things look better now than anyone could have imagined in 2006, but the United States still has a moral and strategic obligation to help this fragile democracy move forward -- not least because of the thousands of American lives lost in the years leading up to this election.

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