Leading article: Iraq takes a step forward

It would be easy to read too much into Iraq's provincial elections. The vote, carried out last Saturday and still being counted, brought out only just over half of those entitled to vote, considerably less than the 60 per cent that had been hoped for. The 51 per cent who did turn out were voting only for provincial posts while the key Kurdish provinces plus the contested region of Kirkuk were not included, for fear that they would only arouse separatist sentiment.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of this moment. These are the first elections to be carried out since the government signed an agreement with the US authorities to end the US occupation by 2011. They were the first to test the Iraqi security forces' ability to hold a peaceful nationwide election. And they are the first to test the authority of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, since he reached an agreement on the departure of American and British forces.

If nothing else the fact that a peaceable vote has taken place shows the benefit of that agreement. Those who said that any withdrawal of foreign forces would result in a collapse of civil order have been proved wrong, at least so far. And that applies to Basra, where the draw-down of British troops seems to have gone without a murmur.

In political terms the election strengthens the position of Mr Maliki and his allies, who campaigned on a strong platform of nationalism and security, against the more overtly religious parties and their militias. The Sunnis voted in force, in contrast to their boycott of elections in 2005, and there was a wide plurality of contenders, with a substantial number of independent and secular candidates.

Iraq has a long way to go before it can be called a successful democracy. The sidestepping of the Kurdish question is particularly glaring. Parliamentary elections later this year may show far sharper divisions than the country has seen this time round. But for anyone who hopes to see Iraq emerge from the traumas of tyranny and occupation, this vote has been an encouraging sign that Iraqis may at last be taking a grip of their own destiny.