With some bewilderment, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman notes an Arab leader complains that Iraq's new Governing Council was chosen by the United States and not elected by the Iraqi people.

That complaint should begin at home in Arab countries where elections are not permitted, writes Mr. Friedman. Democracy has to start somewhere, and the Governing Council is a first step.

That's right, says Eric Davis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. And let's keep going: ?I feel that the development of this Governing Council is an important first step, and I think the sooner we can expand its responsibilities and powers, the better both for the Iraqis and also for our presence in Iraq. If you look at some of the polling that has been done, you will see that Iraqis are generally supportive of the American presence. However, what they want is to make sure that that presence is not indefinite.?

Karen Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio, says Iraqi responsibility is already expanding because the Governing Council has more power than the United Nations called for:

?The Americans, when they finally completed the negotiations with the groups that make up this Governing Council, ended up giving them powers that they did not need to under the U.N. mandate. The Americans have shown themselves willing, under pressure from the Iraqis and the Governing Council and under pressure from the situation they face in Iraq, to expedite the transition to Iraqi authority.?

Iraqi disunity is much exaggerated, says Professor Davis. Before Saddam Hussein's Baathist party came to power in 1968, Iraqis enjoyed cultural and political pluralism in a Western-style civil society. Even under Saddam, this society maintained an underground existence.

Now it can reemerge, says Professor Davis, with Iraqis' cooperation demonstrated on the Governing Council: ?They have already agreed upon a rotating presidency, as it were, so different individuals representing the differing political and ethnic groups in Iraq will be able to hold power. One can think of other counties that have adopted this type of formula, such as Switzerland. This is a very positive sign to my mind. And remember that we have a long tradition of inter-ethnic cooperation, really going back to the period prior to World War I and especially during the 1920 revolution.?

In that uprising, Iraqis united against British rule, which had not fulfilled its promise of democracy.

A democratic system is especially important for the Kurds, writes The Economist magazine, because they have achieved considerable autonomy and more prosperity than the rest of Iraq. They cannot be ruled by Baghdad without their full participation.

Karen Dawisha, who has made a study of democratization in former communist countries, says Iraq has a particular advantage: ?One thing that the Iraqis have going for them is the American and British presence and the obligation under the United Nations latest Security Council resolution to provide all kinds of services, including respect for human rights until the transition ends. So they do have an absolute obligation to help Iraqis build democracy. Post-communist countries did not have that. They did not have this kind of direct presence.?

Karen Dawisha says a mainstay of democracy is a thriving middle class. She and her husband Adeed Dawisha write in Foreign Affairs journal that despite years of debilitating sanctions and Saddam Hussein's oppression, a middle class persists in Iraq. But it is quiescent and subservient to the state. It must be strengthened, they write, by shifting resources from the public to the private sector.

?In the past, this middle class existed basically because they were well educated, but they worked for the state," says Ms. Dawisha. "That is not the same as having an independent civil status and an interest in keeping the state from crossing the boundary and getting too strong. One hopes that the process of privatization in Iraq will run parallel with the process of democratization so that people will see that they need to form parties, form groups to pressure the state to fulfill their interests. That is what democracy is all about.?

If Iraq can achieve democracy, says Karen Dawisha, it would be a wonderful gift to the Arab world, which indeed is struggling in various ways to become more democratic: ?Sometimes the American press goes overboard in talking about the negatives. There are fledgling experiments. Of course, there are elections in Iran. New elections just occurred In Jordan. There is a multi-party system without free elections in Egypt. There are various things going on in the Gulf states. But there is nothing that anybody would call a fully fledged democracy.?

Professor Davis notes some Iraqi influence on its neighbors already. He cites the case of democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim who was sentenced to seven years' hard labor in Egypt and lost a series of appeals for his release. After the Iraq war, he finally won his freedom.

This is only one individual, if an important one, says Professor Davis: ?But I think that is indicative of how many countries in the Middle East are now going to think much very carefully about the viability of authoritarian rule. I think that they are going to realize that the example of Iraq is going to provide a model that other Arabs and other peoples in the Middle East are going to aspire to, who presently live under authoritarian rule.?

Eric Davis says democracy must be meaningful to Iraq's Sunnis, who enjoyed a special standing and important privileges under Saddam Hussein. They occupied key posts in the bureaucracy, the army, and the security forces. Now they must face the reality of sharing power with Kurds and the majority Shiites. Feeling this loss, they appear to be the source of much of the violence against Americans. So it is essential, says Eric Davis, to assure them they will be equal participants in the new democracy.

That democracy, he adds, must include social justice - a sharing of the wealth as it emerges and a safety net for the poor. The United States will need the help of other nations in meeting this considerable expense: ?Iraq is going to need a tremendous amount of capital influx if it is going to really come back," says Mr. Davis. "The viability of democracy is going to be contingent upon people really feeling that they have a stake in the government that is reconstructed. If it is only a democracy for the well to do, it is not going to be a very stable system. That is the same type of system that was overthrown in the revolution of 1958.?

Above all, say analysts, the current violence in Iraq must be curbed. If it continues or grows worse, says Karen Dawisha, the Americans and others may pick up and go home, leaving the job incomplete and the region in a mess.