As impatience grows over the lack of clear authority and basic services a month after US-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, a sense of urgency surrounds efforts to create a provisional government in Iraq.
Iraqi political leaders were expected to present their plan to US officials last night. In essence, they hope to convene a national conference next month to elect a government that would last one to two years, until elections can be held.
The Iraqi proposal marks the first step toward democratic rule in Iraq, and presents a key test of the ability of disparate former opposition groups - whose years in exile were periodically marked by division - to work together.
"We have our differences, and the process will be difficult, but I hope we can do it because it is very critical," says Adel Abdul Mahdi, a senior official of the largest Iraqi political party, the Supreme Council for an Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
In a hotel surrounded by Kurdish special forces armed with AK-47s, the parties argued over whom to invite and how to proceed - a process that was expected to last long into the night.
At issue is just how the 350 to 400 delegates to that conference should be chosen. The assembly's makeup will determine the shape and ideology of the interim government, which will play a key role in setting Iraq's political course.
"They know that in spite of their differences, agreement must emerge," says Gailan Ramiz, who teaches politics at Baghdad University. "The force for a compromise will be there, because they know that Iraq will break up if there isn't one."
The heads of five parties allied in the struggle against Saddam Hussein were expected to broaden their council to include other groups in the "nucleus of leadership" that retired Gen. Jay Garner, the No. 2 civil-administration official in Iraq, predicted earlier this week. That council is designed to lead Iraq toward representative government under US and British supervision.
The US-backed Iraqi National Congress (INC), led by Ahmed Chalabi, wants the conference to include the 65 members of a council elected last December at an opposition meeting in London, and one delegate per 100,000 people, chosen from Iraq's 18 provinces.
This would weight the assembly more towards Iraqis who did not go into exile. "We are saying we should leave political parties behind, and get more Iraqis from inside who don't have parties," says Zaab Sethna, spokesman for the INC.
Such "internal" delegates would be appointed by professional organizations, trades unions, local mosques, tribal leaders, and other representative groups, with some seats set aside for minorities such as Christians, Mr. Sethna suggested.
SCIRI, along with the two Kurdish parties and the Iraqi National Accord, run by former Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Ayyad Allawi, are demanding that more political-party representatives be given seats in the assembly.
SCIRI and the two Kurdish groups, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which hold more than half the seats on the existing 65-member council, would benefit most from such an arrangement if the new places were allotted according to the same proportions.
"The political forces are mature forces, and they are the nucleus of the process," argues Dr. Abdul Mahdi. "Without them, we have nothing to drive the process."
All five groups appear to agree on the method for selecting delegates from around the country. "It is not real democracy, but it is as close as we can get at this stage to know the will of the people," says Abdul Mahdi.
The US signaled its interest in giving new impetus to the political process with the appointment earlier this week of Paul Bremer, a veteran State Department official, to oversee Iraq's postwar political administration. The US says it wants Iraqi politicians to lead their country to democracy, but it must approve the system the former opposition leaders choose.
"Till now the Americans have said 'ye-'. We need them to say a real 'yes,' " says Abdul Mahdi.
US officials are dubious about the unpredictability of the selection process, says Leith Kubbeh, an Iraq expert at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, who has been working on plans for democratizing the country.
"They don't want to do it because they don't know who they will have in the room" at the conference, he says. "But that is a small price to pay for getting Iraq on the right track."
Under the plan being developed, the assembly, as well as electing an interim government, would also be responsible for drafting a new constitution and organizing a census, to prepare for elections for a permanent government within 24 months.
US officials have drawn encouragement about the prospects for democratic development in Iraq from the northern city of Mosul. The country's most ethnically diverse city, it has set up a council, under US supervision, of 24 elected members from six ethnic groups. All were sworn in by the city's chief judge on Monday.
IN Baghdad, the leadership council was expected to invite at least two more members to join it - most likely a Sunni Muslim figure and a leader from the Islamist Dawa Party, which was fiercely repressed by Mr. Hussein. At a later stage, one or two more members, perhaps including a Christian, will be asked to participate, according to sources close to the council.
That would further diversify what is already a highly disparate group, ranging from proponents of an Islamic state to defenders of a Western style liberal democratic society.
"It seems that we are all working in the same direction," says Abdul Mahdi. "But it is still only words, and until now there has been no real action."
Many independent observers, however, expect the parties, who have been allied off and on since 1992, to reach an agreement. "The more steps that are called interim and not final the better," suggests Professor Ramiz. "That gives parties the hope that they can maneuver, and that if they don't win today, they might win tomorrow."
At the same time, he adds, political leaders have more freedom of action now than they might have had when ordinary Iraqis paid close attention to politics.
For the time being, he says, "the Iraqi public is less inclined to be politicized than it used to be. They are exhausted as a civil society, but they know the benefits of an affluent life" that only political stability can bring.