We all want the Iraqis to take over their own country, but they're not ready yet

Iraq is roiling with anger and discontent. Getting the armed factions to agree to a constitution may be the work of years, not months
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Ten minutes from Nasiriyah on the edge of the marshes a curious statue dominates the crossroads. It is a monument from the time of the first Gulf war. The figure is curious in the sense that it celebrates as victory what everybody knows was a defeat. A soldier stands facing towards Kuwait, right hand upraised and with his foot trampling on the head of a dragon.

Even by Saddam's standards the idea of Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf as a vanquished lizard is spectacularly delusional. Yet the locals haven't pulled the statue down. It isn't because they like Saddam. This is Shia country and they would gladly rip Saddam into a million pieces if they could. I think it's because they recognise the soldier in the statue as one of them. He was conscripted for Saddam's war and thousands like him died to satisfy the dictator's ambition.

Everywhere else the statues and mosaics of Saddam have been torn down or defaced. You never see the once-omnipresent face. Saddam is memory and curse. The people of southern Iraq are creating their new reality and it extends far beyond the merely cosmetic. After the crossroads you enter the marshes, acres of glittering water, the landscape of Wilfred Thesiger and Gavin Maxwell. But every few miles there are patches of sun-blasted desert.

This is where Saddam drained the marshes to try to destroy the fierce independence of the locals. Now engineers from the coalition are flooding the parched acres, bringing back the watery wilderness. The locals approve. Here the coalition troops are relaxed. Several Romanian soldiers were boiling in their body armour while the locals drifted past in their dugout canoes.

I had come here to witness an improbable spectacle: an Iraqi election.

OK, it was just a village poll. Nobody who won a seat would have much in the way of real power when it was over. And I didn't see a single woman queuing up to vote (though the Coalition Provincial Authority says they will insist on universal suffrage). But the atmosphere in the village school was like nothing I'd experienced since South Africa in 1994.

People were crushed into narrow corridors but there wasn't a single argument. A man with a loudhailer wandered around the polling booths. "Any of you whose faces I see voting twice will be thrown out," he shouted. A policeman shadowed him just to enforce the point. At one end of the room tables had been laid out at which local notables scanned lists and checked identity cards. Next to them sat the judge in his best suit. He stamped each polling card before the voter ticked off his preference and popped the ballot in the box. There were 26 candidates and 6,000 voters.

I heard a loud commotion behind me and turned to look. Dozens of men were surging through the door. The policeman on duty gave up. "I can't hold them back," he said. "Never in all my life did I think I would see something like this. To think of me guarding an election." A young British army officer was there to supervise but he seemed to keep well in the background. What he couldn't have missed, though, was the extraordinary passion for voting.

From Basra up to Nasiriyah this week I've heard the same thing. Iraqis want to rule themselves and they are getting impatient. Which brings us to the dominating issue of the Iraq crisis (and it is a real crisis, whatever the assurances of the Pentagon).

This week the French and Germans spoke of handing over Iraq to local rule within months. But in making this grand proposal Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder neglected to say just who would be given power. Are they talking about a power-sharing government made up of the various Shia and Sunni factions along with the smaller parties such as the communists and Labour? Or do they mean an Islamic state? If so, which version? And lastly, do they truly believe that the people behind the current attacks on the Americans are about to pack up and go home because the UN adopts a new mandate?

I ask the questions because on the face of it the Franco-German proposals seem so perfectly sensible. But to assume that the political mess of post-war Iraq can be sorted out in months is to gallop away from reality. Iraq is roiling with discontent and anger. Getting the well-armed factions to agree to a constitution that pleases everybody may be the work of years, not months. On top of that the infrastructure remains in a state of shambles in much of the country. Rebuilding what official neglect, sanctions and war have done is a decade-long task.

I've come away from a week in Basra with two overriding impressions. Firstly, the status of the coalition. The British forces are doing a hard job with tact and dedication. The British administrator, Sir Hilary Synott, is shrewd, realistic and willing to listen to the locals. However, the second impression is deeply worrying. People are angry because they don't have enough electricity and water. They look out the door and see rivers of green sewage flowing on their streets. Criminal gangs - the so-called Ali Babas - terrorise the poorer areas. The people who take abuse for this are the troops on the ground.

But it's the war planners who deserve the blame. The initiative was lost in the first fortnight after the collapse of Saddam and the coalition has been playing catch-up ever since. I don't believe that Iraq is a lost cause. It can't be. Those who crow about the mess the Americans find themselves in should remember that a disaster in Iraq will harm us all. A swift retreat would be followed by civil war.

If the war itself increased the danger of terrorism, then just think what the chaos of civil conflict would produce. Retreat would also usher in a prolonged period of American isolationism. An America that acts unilaterally is worrying enough; an America that withdraws from engaging with international problems would be much worse. So the "pull out and let them at it" brigade should think hard.

The answer comes in three parts. Get more troops on the ground including some to replace the Americans in those areas of western and central Iraq where they are manifestly unable to cope; dramatically accelerate the flow of aid money to get services sorted out; but above all quickly create a strong Iraqi army and police force. Only security forces drawn from across Iraq's factions will have the legitimacy to enforce order. None of this guarantees success.

Every day brings the reported killings of American troops and the unreported deaths of Iraqis caught in the crime wave. But that small experiment in democracy I saw in the marshlands outside Nasiriyah suggested another Iraq. Born in violence, Iraq still lives by the culture of the gun. I only hope that the surging crowds in that village school were more than a momentary flash of hope.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent