WASHINGTON — The second gathering of Iraq's political and religious leaders was held on Saddam Hussein's 66th birthday Monday. The meeting was delayed by the delegates' difficulties in negotiating American checkpoints. These were a couple of the sidelights of a democracy struggling to be born.
As revealing as anything was the arrest, by order of the US Central Command, of the flamboyant Mohammad Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the returned exile who had declared himself mayor of Baghdad and was issuing orders to municipal employees. The charge against him: trying to take personal and political advantage of the power vacuum. You may not find that in the criminal code, but a new criminal code is also a work in progress.
As Iraq moves toward some form of popular government, the American hand remains visible. Ahmed Chalabi, longtime exile and head of the Iraqi National Congress, has not attracted much support from those who suffered in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years. But Mr. Chalabi enjoys Pentagon support, which goes a long way in the gestating governance of Iraq.
Retired Gen. Jay Garner faces the problem of not letting Iraq go where a majority of Iraqis might want to take it. His official mandate is the creation of "an Islamic democracy," not to be confused with "Islamic republic," (the government of ayatollahs that Iran has). Some Iraqi Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, have been demonstrating for US departure and the creation of an Islamic republic.
"That isn't going to happen," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "A regime like that of Iran is not compatible with our vision for Iraq."
Ten hours of discussion on Monday resulted in more progress than many had anticipated. There was talk of establishing a presidential council of five or six members rather than a single president. In the end, it was decided to hold a national conference to set up an interim government.
The big question is the role of the Shiites, who themselves are disunited. The Pentagon had planned for a lot of contingencies, but it didn't anticipate the hundreds of thousands of chanting, self-flagellating Shiites who marched to the holy city of Karbala, carrying as many anti-American as anti-Hussein placards. Karbala was where the prophet Imam Hussein, grandson of Mohammad, was supposedly killed in battle in 680, his martyrdom becoming the symbol of the Shiite branch of Islam.
This was not the first time the American government had reason to study up on Shiite Islam. Vividly remembered is the uprising in Iran in 1979, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which toppled the shah and lead to the seizure of the American embassy with its staff for 444 days.
Now, American Special Forces troops and intelligence agents are working at the community level, trying to identify moderates and secular figures. This is a delicate operation if the impression is not to be given of America trying to install handpicked officials.
It may be - don't hold your breath - that a democratic process has begun in Iraq.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.