New York, N.Y. — Iraq’s first fully democratic national election has turned out to be a solid success. Not a triumph — that would have been an 80 percent turnout in every region — but a better-than-expected 60 percent estimated turnout in an atmosphere you might call a civic carnival.

Yesterday the conventional wisdom of the U.S. media, European governments and even as one suspects, the White House, was that most Iraqis would vote unless the terrorists frightened them with bombs, bullets and mortars. In the event, both things happened: the terrorists did kill would-be voters and bombed polling stations, but most Iraqis voted anyway. In the final analysis every voter cast two votes — one for the party of his choice, the other against the terrorist insurgency.

When the final figures are announced we will know how many Sunnis turned out, maybe around 30 percent. Remember however, that every vote cast in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle was an extraordinary act of civic courage. Compare a national turnout of 60 percent and a Sunni turnout of 30 percent with the 45 percent turnout in last year’s European Parliament elections in which some national averages fell below 20 percent. Finally, imagine how few Europeans would have voted if the price of the franchise was a real risk of being murdered.

Of course, the hard part of building democracy now begins. Will today be the start of a process leading to a stable democratic government with constitutional protection for minority rights in two or three years, or will it break down amid religious and communal acrimony, and lead to a civil war between Sunni, Kurd and Shia?

Yes, democracy in Iraq could fail — as it has done many times in Africa, Latin America and Europe itself, but the country has more of the preconditions for a successful democracy than most people credit. It has a well-educated people, considerable oil wealth, a strong middle class, and even a tradition of elections and limited democracy under the British and the monarchy. As well as Baathist bitter-enders and Shia hotheads, it has prudent religious leaders and a sophisticated political establishment who want a constitutional compromise. Yesterday’s atmosphere of joyful democratic commitment suggests the beginnings of a unifying national patriotism that might overcome communal rivalries.

President Bush can rightly feel pleased. The election is a modest gain for his strategy of spreading democratic liberty through the Middle East. After Afghanistan and Iraq, those modest victories are beginning to add up. But the U.S. will still be needed to support Iraqi democracy through its difficult adolescence and against an increasingly desperate insurgency. The president will therefore need to fight domestic battles against Democrats urging a quick U.S. withdrawal — too many of whom would prefer Iraqi democracy to fail rather than hand a political victory to the president.

That is an ignoble attitude, of course, and because it is an increasingly blatant attitude, it is decidedly not smart politics.

John O'Sullivan, former special advisor to British Prime Minister Lady Margaret Thatcher, is the editor of The National Interest and a member of Benador Associates. He is also a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, and serves as editor-at-large of National Review. Prior to this, he was the editor-in-chief of United Press International. His other previous posts have included editorial consultant to Hollinger International, associate editor of the London Times, assistant editor of the London Daily Telegraph, and editor of Policy Review. Mr. O'Sullivan was born in Great Britain in 1942. He was educated at London University where he received a B.A. (Hons.) and a Diploma of Social Studies. He stood for Parliament as a Conservative in the 1970 General Election for Gateshead West.