Dear Concerned Citizen,

The march toward democracy continues slowly, fitfully, and yet unmistakably in Iraq. The apparent recent approval by Iraqis of the proposed Constitution is the latest step. True, Sunnis in two provinces, Anbar and Salahuddin, seem to have voted against the charter. But in Diyala and Nineveh, two Sunni provinces that were expected to vote no, the Constitution appears to have won a majority of the Sunni vote. Even the New York Times, no friend of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, conceded that the latest result is “an important step in Iraq’s transition to full independence.”

To see how far Iraq has come, recall that when America invaded Iraq there was virtually no talk of democracy. The Bush administration hoped and expected to find weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s democracy policy had the air of afterthought. When no weapons of mass destruction turned up, American officials seemed to have cooked up the democracy project to justify continued American occupation in Iraq. At least this is how it looked to skeptical Muslims, and to domestic critics of the Bush administration.

But that is not how it looks now. Even though history provides little or no basis for optimism about Arab democracy, Bush invoked the legacy of the American founders, who proclaimed not just that “all Americans are created equal” but “all men.” In his second inaugural address Bush said the love of liberty is universal, and that it would be America’s policy not to prop up dictators in the name of stability, but rather to work for democracy to advance both Muslim welfare and American security.

The Iraqi election was a landmark event, not only because of the large and enthusiastic voter turnout–in the face of threats from insurgent attackers–but also because the result showed that America was serious about letting the Iraqis choose their own government. The American provisional authority had picked Iyad Allawi, a secular liberal, as its choice for interim prime minister. The Iraqis rejected Allawi and chose their own man, Ibrahim al-Jafaari, who is neither secular nor liberal but represents a party that wants Islamic law to govern Iraq. Jafaari’s election shows that America is willing to live with democratic outcomes that go against American preferences.

Even the proposed Iraqi Constitution did not, at first, meet with the Bush administration’s approval. The Constitution offers regional autonomy to the major groups in Iraq: the Kurds in the north, the Shia in the south, and the Sunni in the middle. It proposes a sharing of oil revenues. It also declares that Islam shall be a source of all the laws and that no laws can be adopted that contravene Islamic law. In short, the Constitution placed itself in subordination to a higher law, that of the Koran and the Islamic sharia.

Many American liberals expressed their disgust, and the Bush administration did its best to moderate the move toward what it perceived as Islamic “theocracy.” But the concern was largely misplaced. Why can’t Iraqis choose a constitutional structure that places the legislative authority within the parameters of Islam’s moral teaching? Here in America we have democratically chosen a system that protects individual rights and equality. But surely we do not deny that other societies have a right to choose differently. Nor are the Iraqis repudiating democracy by opting for “divine right.” America’s constitutional system is also based on “divine right,” in the sense that the source of rights is recognized in the Declaration of Independence as none other than “our Creator.”

Sunni discontent over the proposed Constitution was never a surprise, because the Sunnis were the group that made up Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. They are the ones who are used to ruling Iraq for decades, without consulting the wishes or looking to the welfare of any other group. Now the Sunnis are facing the reality that they make up 20 percent of the population, and the Shia 60 percent. No wonder the Shias like democracy and the Sunnis are ambivalent.

Despite this ambivalence, it is remarkable to see the Sunnis, who are being actively courted by the Al Qaeda-supported insurgency, turn out and vote in such large numbers. Sunni participation would be impressive enough even if the Sunnis voted down the proposed Constitution. Even that would demonstrate that Sunnis were using ballots, not bullets, to convey their political preferences. But as it turned out many Sunnis voted in favor of the new Constitution. They accepted, in effect, that they would now have to share power with other groups–indeed that their position would now be that of a minority in a Shia-led coalition government.

It may be too much to say that a democratic wind is blowing in the Middle East, but what seems clear is that Iraq is taking the hard steps necessary to establish full-blown democracy. Majority rule is one thing, but democracy in the mature sense requires majority rule with minority rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary. Iraq is making progress on all these fronts. And now other countries in the Middle East, from Kuwait to Lebanon to Egypt, are debating the merits of democracy and taking fledgling steps toward it.

The war is far from over. The insurgency can be expected to fight on. But increasingly it is fighting against Iraqi soldiers and against the will of the Iraqi people. Long term, that’s a battle that Al Qaeda is unlikely to win.