Just as insurgents failed to stop Iraq's elections, the polls are unlikely to stop the insurgency. But the massive turnout for the elections establishes decisively that the insurgents do not speak for the overwhelming majority of Iraq's Muslims. In the absence of elections and democratic processes a brutal but dedicated minority manages to amplify its message.

Now, if the United States acts sensibly, the terrorist minority can be isolated from the broad mass of people. The vote in Iraq on Sunday was a vote for Iraqi democracy, not for US military occupation. President George W. Bush now has the opportunity to prove to his critics that the US commitment to democracy and not the need for occupying Iraq is the determining factor in Washington's policy.

Once before, in Vietnam in 1967, the United States and its local allies squandered an opportunity to build upon the holding of successful elections.

Then, the Vietcong failed to prevent a high turnout in presidential polls in South Vietnam. But unlike Iraq where the transitional national assembly will comprise of popular clerics, trial chiefs and local politicians, South Vietnam's elected president and vice-president/premier were American-backed generals. Nguyen Van Thieu and General Nguyen Cao Ky did not address the issues of concern to their people. The corrupt Vietnamese security apparatus became addicted to US aid and President Lyndon Johnson's desire for decisive victory sucked America deeper into Vietnam's quagmire.

Hopefully, wiser from the lessons of its earlier interventions elsewhere in the world, the United States would not make similar mistakes in Iraq. Instead of imposing a strongman of its choice, Washington should allow the elected Iraqi assembly to throw up leaders on its own and work out an exit strategy for its troops after training Iraq's security forces.

Political process

Despite the success of Iraq's elections, there is much that can go wrong there. The United States could try and micromanage Iraq's political process, thereby creating a wedge between itself and the newly elected leaders. The new (and old) breed of Iraqi politicians could pursue ethnic, sectarian and communal interests at the expense of consensus and accommodation.

This could lead to a deadlock in constitution-making. The demands for security could be used by Americans or Iraqis to curtail Iraq's relatively new freedoms. If Iraq is to become a beacon for freedom and democracy in the greater Middle East, these potential pitfalls must definitely be avoided. What must also be avoided is the temptation to prefer generals and technocrats over popular politicians a phenomenon that has resulted in the poor record of democracy in the region from Morocco to Pakistan.

The Iraqi people's enthusiasm for elections should put to rest the myth perpetuated for years by monarchs and ruling generals that Muslim nations are not ready for democracy. The Iraqi polls come on the heels of similarly successful elections in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. The United States encouraged each of these elections and must be given due credit for doing so.

Elected politicians, and technocrats willing to work alongside politicians, have emerged as the leaders of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinians. But in countries where an army built up during colonial times still exists, the security apparatus rather than elected or electable politicians continues to be seen by the Americans as the guarantee of stability.

Every democracy in the world has gone through and continues to go through such ups and downs. In several Muslim countries, however, the normal rough patches of evolving democracy have been used as justification for overthrowing democracy. In Iran, the oil policies of the elected Mossadegh government were labelled as creeping communism and led to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that gave absolute power to the Shah until Iran's 1979 revolution.

In Algeria, the first round victory of Islamists in the 1991 parliamentary polls was used to argue that the country would be better off under brutal military rule than fall to theocracy. The United States has often accepted these myriad arguments and backed authoritarian Muslim leaders. Efficient government has often been preferred over representative government.

If America's project of a democratic Iraq is to succeed, the United States would have to set aside its tradition of denigrating flawed democrats and backing efficient dictators.

Ideally democratic governments must also be made efficient and corruption-free. But until that ideal is attained, democracy must be allowed to run its course in Iraq as elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Husain Haqqani is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University. He served as adviser to Pakistani Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and as Pakistan's Ambassador to Sri Lanka.