Paul Greenberg

What can this be approaching across the sands of Iraq? It can't be. It's not possible. It's not found in this unnatural habitat ... and yet there is. It shows the outward signs, including some of the innate strengths and inevitable weaknesses and distinctive eccentricities of that rarest of creatures in those Mesopotamian climes: democracy.

It must be a mirage, like so many other fleeting signs of hope over the chaotic years in Iraq. And yet it betrays at least a couple of the characteristic traits of a lumbering democracy: a free election (at least by Iraqi standards) and a surprising outcome. A party out of power seems to have received more votes than the ruling one. How rare in that part of the world, where despotism is the rule and democracy a carefully cultivated exception. Like a garden in a desert.

But there it is. Undeniably. Even in Iraq. The secularist ticket headed by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has garnered a couple of seats more (91 to 89 at last report) than Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shi'ite coalition. Even if neither party alone polled a majority of Iraq's many-splintered electorate.

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That the election was relatively peaceful was itself a triumph for democracy. "Only" 42 people were killed and 65 wounded in twin bombings north of Baghdad as officials prepared to announce the election results. Peace is a highly relative term in that strife-torn nation, but today's Iraq is an oasis of tranquility compared to the one that was on the verge of civil war only a few years ago. How things have changed, and -- keep your fingers crossed -- much for the better.

Before the Surge, Iraq's future was so bleak that at least one U.S. senator proposed to partition it, like Gaul, into three parts. It was quite a fashionable idea at the time among our foreign-policy elite, and Joe Biden echoed it. He has since gone on to become vice-president of the United States, which gives him a much more impressive sounding board for his more embarrassing comments. He's still got a million of 'em.

In Iraq, a party headed by Shi'ite -- Ayad Allawi's -- drew Sunni voters in overwhelming numbers. Which was a victory for tolerance in itself. While the other major bloc, Prime Minister Maliki's Shi'ite-based coalition, preached reconciliation, at least formally. Whoever turns out to be the next prime minister of Iraq, that each had to appeal to the whole, varied country is a welcome augury for its united future.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.