The plan to choose an Iraqi transitional assembly, the key to President Bush's promise to turn over sovereignty by June 30, has run into unexpected roadblocks, prompting a series of negotiations between the United States, the United Nations, and Iraq's powerful Shi'ite community.
Last week, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose insistence on popular elections was rejected by the Americans, indicated his willingness to consider the administration's plan to choose delegates by regional caucus, but only if the UN played a role in overseeing the process.
Sistani's challenge led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, culminating in a request on Thursday by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for more clarity on the nature and extent of the role it might be asked to play in the selection process.
State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan told the Globe the administration was open to the idea of greater UN involvement prior to the transition. Still, past negotiations between the UN and the Bush administration suggest that any resolution could be difficult.
And with a grand ayatollah calling for universal suffrage, "the United States is in a strange position, where Sistani is on the side of democracy and the United States is not," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has studied democracy and the rule of law.
Any significant delay in choosing the transitional assembly could have serious consequences for the United States, which could face a choice between transferring sovereignty to the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, whose legitimacy is widely questioned among Iraqis, or delaying transferring sovereignty altogether, which many specialists fear will prolong the insurgency.
Under an agreement announced last month, the transitional assembly would take over control of Iraq on June 30 and then prepare the country for elections, first, to an assembly that will write the permanent constitution and then, by the end of 2005, to a democratic Iraqi government.
By selecting the transitional assembly through regional caucuses, the occupation authorities hoped to avoid the chaos of early elections, while still producing an assembly with broad support.
The caucus committees would consist of regional and local notables selected by the governing council and provincial authorities. Said Amatzia Baram, an Iraq specialist at the US Institute of Peace: "It's not full democracy. . . . It's democracy of the elites."
Given the doubt that such an assembly would be seen as truly representative, the disapproval of Sistani, one of four grand ayatollahs in Shi'ite Iraq, was a serious blow, according to those familiar with Iraqi politics.
Among the four grand ayatollahs, Sistani's influence is thought to be the furthest reaching.
Sistani is "one of the top two or three clerics in the Shia world," said Yitzhak Nakash, chairman of the Middle East Studies program at Brandeis University. "His fame and significance are very significant."
The Iranian-born ayatollah adheres to the Shi'ite tradition known as quietism, which holds that though clerics can speak out at moments of national crisis, they should not participate directly in politics. Sistani's quietism conflicts directly with the theocratic ideology of neighboring Shi'ite Iran. It also helped him survive the regime of Saddam Hussein, who punished Shi'ite activists with imprisonment, torture, and death.
Today, when Sistani speaks out on political matters, his words carry enormous weight among Iraqi Shi'ites, about 60 percent of the country's population. But he does not mention religion in his political pronouncements.
"Not a word he's written couldn't have been written by a member of the political theory faculty at Harvard," remarked Noah Feldman, professor of law at New York University and former senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Sistani's first intervention in the transition process came in the form of a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for direct elections to the assembly that was to draft the new Iraqi constitution. The US-led coalition has granted that request. But Sistani's more recent call for popular elections to the transitional assembly proved more problematic.
"Sistani is motivated by the desire to get this right for the sake of the Iraqi people," said Sullivan of the State Department. "We share the same objective."
But whether the means should be caucuses or early elections has been a matter of intense dispute.
The United States, according to those close to the coalition authority, has objected to early elections on administrative, security, and political grounds.
Iraq lacks a current census that would make districting possible. It also lacks voter rolls, electoral laws, and the means of securing polling stations against terrorist attacks.
Finally, there is deep anxiety that early elections would produce results frustrating to Washington's vision of a democratic Iraq. With its civic life long ago snuffed out by the regime of Hussein, Iraq lacks political parties whose views and leaders the public knows and trusts. But religious extremists and former Ba'athists have the advantage of name recognition.
"In this type of situation, some groups have time to mobilize and build constituencies, because they have organizational advantages," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Other groups, which may be more modern and centrist and understand democratic principles, may not have the same opportunity."
If Iraq winds up with the wrong kind of transitional assembly, said Baram, it could be very hard to dislodge. "They may say: `We'll have elections in 10 years. The people are not ready yet.' Meanwhile, they'll milk the country and maybe kill some of their enemies."
Before handing over power, Americans may have only one opportunity to shape the future government of Iraq. The coalition authorities and the appointed Governing Council are due to complete an interim constitution by Feb. 28. Political analysts familiar with Iraq are wondering whether or how it will resolve the two most profound structural questions facing the future Iraq: the role of Islam in government and the federal structure of the state.
Although few Iraqis advocate direct participation of clerics in politics, even fewer endorse a strictly secular state. Whether Islam is defined as the state religion or recognized as the only legitimate source of governance and law remains to be negotiated by the writers of the permanent constitution.
But there is a good chance that whatever solution is enshrined in the interim document will become the basis for that discussion, according to people close to the process.
The same is true of Iraq's federal structure. The country's three main ethnic and sectarian groups have powerful interests: the Kurds, in maintaining the autonomy they have enjoyed since the 1991 Gulf War; the Shi'ites, in attaining power relative to their numbers for the first time in Iraq's history; and the Sunnis, in protecting themselves from vengeful Shi'ite repression, as well as in retaining access to oil resources, which lie mostly on Kurdish or Shi'ite land. Different federal configurations serve some of these interests and not others.
Carnegie's Ottaway has argued emphatically against attempting to settle these hotly contested issues before a final constitution is adopted.
Attempting to do so, she said, will lead to deadlock and further delay the transition.
"The more they pack into the interim constitution, the less likely it is to have acceptance," Ottaway said.
Still, Baram said that the interim constitution needs to build in safeguards against Shi'ite domination, for example, by requiring 80 percent majorities in parliament.
The role of Islam in the new Iraq could be even thornier. Views vary among Iraqis, with Shi'ites more open to the participation of clerics in government than minority Sunnis.
It is hard to imagine the Bush administration giving its blessing to an Islamist Iraqi state. But Ottaway pointed out that it did just that in Afghanistan.
"There is not a single constitution in the Arab world that doesn't mention Islam," Ottaway said. To imagine that Iraq could be the first, she said, is "a pipe dream."