Creating an Iraqi democracy from scratch while Americans are in charge was bound to be a chicken-and-egg dilemma.
The egg: Establish a legitimately elected government before handing over sovereignty to Iraqis.
The chicken: Hand over sovereignty first so Iraqis feel they can then legitimately elect a government without US influence.
Last week, the chicken argument (sovereignty first) won, but only after six months of United States efforts to incubate a group of Iraqis so they could write a constitution and hold full elections.
The irony for President Bush in giving up the egg idea (elections first) is that he had to bow to the majority - the 60 percent of Iraqis who are Shiite Muslims and who were long suppressed under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
Mr. Bush's reversal was, well, very democratic of him, although he had no choice. Shiite leaders on the US-chosen Governing Council of Iraq had insisted since June on an election simply to select a constitution-writing body. They just had to wait him out.
Never mind that such an election wouldn't have all the safeguards of a power-distributing constitution that could ensure elections are held fairly in such a diverse, volatile nation. The Shiites want to use their majority power now to shape a new government and block American influence that might balance power evenly.
Bush lost leverage over the Shiites in October when the US signed onto a UN Security Council resolution that calls for Iraqis to set a timetable by Dec. 15 for drawing up a constitution and holding elections. With that deadline looming, and with so many attacks on Americans and others, Bush had to cave. He needs progress toward putting Iraqis in charge if he is to draw down American forces and reduce the number of attacks.
The US will now hand over sovereignty by July 1, while keeping charge of security until then and negotiating to stay longer with a new Iraqi government. The Shiites, however, did not exactly get the election they wanted. Rather, the Governing Council agreed only to set up carefully selected town-hall meetings in Iraq's 18 provinces. These caucuses will select representatives for a legislature that will craft a constitution.
This process reflects a recognition that legitimacy in Iraq already resides in mosques and tribes. And it also defers the issue of how much Islamic law will be imposed on Iraq. For now, the nation will be ruled under civil law.
Bush wanted such issues settled first. But public will won out over the elitist route of setting down the principles of governance beforehand.
While American troops may face a lesser risk, should the democracy not take hold. But Iraqi demands for sovereignty sooner reflect a strong will to form a legitimate government.