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NORTHERN IRAQ - A swift, almost elusive handshake between L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. high commissioner in Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi concluded the American occupation. A few official documents transferred power to the new government, along with some traditional kisses on the cheek, and even some adjustment of Bremer's tie.

Occupying America is, henceforth, "invited" America, a status similar to that held by Syria in Lebanon, for example. U.S. forces will continue to operate in Iraq, and the money that will go to Iraq will also be under supervision. The American companies that won huge tenders will not be expelled. However, democracy will have to wait a bit, because Allawi's primary intention is to impose a military regime in order to fight terrorism. This is an accepted mode in some Arab states; it has been used in Egypt for decades. First come temporary emergency laws, which are extended indefinitely.

The end of an occupation is certainly an event that delights every occupied people. But Iraq is not yet being liberated, and the "historic moment," which this year worked overtime, will have to wait for the real celebration. This year the country's volatile ethnic forces came into the open, as Shi'ites fought Shi'ites, Sunnis fought Shi'ites, and Arabs fought Kurds. State unity now looks like a warehouse of spare parts: In the north there is a near-autonomous Kurdish state, tribes in the Ramadi area are running an independent violent province, and in Baghdad forces of the Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr are still seething.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein is a tremendous achievement, but now it's not so certain that the Saddam regime - or, more accurately, the Saddam method - was toppled along with him. Symbolically, Allawi is being photographed next to the Iraqi flag of the Saddam period; the new flag, with the blue stripes, has been shelved. In practice, there will be no option but to recruit thousands of Saddam's soldiers for the country's new army. In much of the country, Allawi is seen as a fascist, a chauvinist, and as a former CIA man and terrorist. Nevertheless, he is still the country's great hope. The worst scenario is a religious Shi'ite state under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Yet this could be the outcome of the democratic process for which the United States is striving. Parliamentary elections are due to be held in January. With the Shi'ites constituting more than 60 percent of the population, and with the religious streams among them being the majority, it can be expected that the next government, the one that will be elected democratically, will also be Shi'ite and religious. It will not necessarily be a mirror image of the government in Iran, but it is liable to aspire to uproot the secular culture that has existed in Iraq for generations, set back the status of women, and restrict freedom of expression, which flowered hugely under the occupation.

And that's still only the less crucial problem. Nondemocratic states are not rare commodities, even in the case of those that have been liberated from occupation. Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and, more recently, Afghanistan are only a few examples that prove the world doesn't fall apart when it identifies a dearth of democracy. Iraq, though, is of strategic importance because of the vast quantities of oil that it can either produce or withhold from the market, and because any ethnic shift can affect the entire region. Large Shi'ite minorities also exist in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf emirates; Kurdish independence will shake the foundations in Turkey, Syria and Iran; and if the new central government is not sufficiently vigilant, terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida are liable to turn Iraq into their DP camp.

The "historic moment" that was fomented last week makes Iraq a new country that is in need of intensive treatment. As things stand, however, there is no agreement between the United States and Europe, or between the U.S. and Russia, about how to treat this patient. What's important in European eyes is that America should not come out of this looking like the hero of the day, and what's important for America is that the timetable for transferring power be followed rigorously. Just check the appropriate box and it will soon be possible to go home.