Since before the war to depose Saddam Hussein began, President Bush has said that the United States would stay in Iraq as long as necessary and not a day longer.
But with international leaders including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan supporting an accelerated timetable for the turnover of power to Iraqi leaders, and with the American public increasingly anxious for a lower American profile in Iraq, the US is under pressure to give up the role of "occupier" sooner rather than later.
With backing from some members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, the French are calling for transfer of power to the Iraqis within as soon as one month. Despite US declarations that a power transfer should wait until the country has stabilized, several of Iraq's most powerful new leaders are demanding that Washington cede at least symbolic sovereignty to their body even before the building blocks of a new Iraq, such as a constitution, are in place. And in a reprise of UN wrangling before the war, France is also insisting that a US-backed Security Council resolution, designed to clear the way for a large infusion of foreign troops and cash, put Iraq's political future in UN hands.
The US insists a hasty turnover risks more chaos later - if fighting were to break out, for example, among Iraqi groups that don't consider quickly installed leaders a legitimate government.
As the UN Security Council debates the merits of French demands, ordinary Iraqi citizens are more concerned with the day-to-day issues of personal safety, jobs, and electricity supplies than the niceties of institution building.
"In principle, everyone on the [Iraqi] Governing Council is in favor of a sovereign Iraqi state, but the conditions are not suitable," says Noshirwan Mustafa, deputy leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We need some time to establish an administration to take over" and to restore security.
Others argue that only a transfer of power to Iraqi authorities could help stem the increasingly violent opposition to occupation forces. "Sovereignty comes before security, not the other way round" says Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Council (INC) leader Ahmed Chalabi. "The more we delay, the more ground the terrorists will gain among ordinary people."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Baghdad for a two-day trip that ended Monday, said Sunday he had told the 25 member Governing Council "in very direct terms" that the US intended to resist the French calls. "The only way that gets us where we have to be is with a deliberate process that first and foremost builds up the institutions of government," he said. "The worst thing that could happen would be for us to rush this process too quickly, before the capacity for governance is there, and the basis for legitimacy is there, and see it fail."
Secretary Powell's visit was directed as much at an increasingly worried American public as at Iraqis.
Polls show that while Americans still generally support the Bush administration's Iraq policy, a growing minority disapproves of the postwar management and is uneasy about prospects for a long-term and undefined occupation.
A Washington Post poll published Sunday shows a nine-point jump since late August, to 46 percent, in Americans "disapproving" of Bush's handling of Iraq. The poll also finds that a majority of Americans balk at the president's request for an additional $87 billion for military and rebuilding work in Iraq next year.
US officials have said they expect an Iraqi committee of legal experts to present a first draft of a constitution by the end of this year, which would then be revised over several months before being submitted for approval to a constitutional congress. Elections might then be held sometime during the latter half of 2004 for a government that would take over full responsibility from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) now ruling the country.
Some prominent Governing Council members, however, led by Mr. Chalabi, have suggested alternative arrangements that would keep the United States and its coalition partners intimately involved in the running of Iraq, but give symbolically important sovereignty to the US-appointed council.
Even before elections are possible, argues the INC's Mr. Qanbar, the existence of a provisional government sitting as a sovereign Iraqi body would deflect criticism of occupation forces and give them an image as liberators instead.
"To have an Iraqi political system run by Iraqis would give a great push to mobilize the potential of the vast majority of Iraqis who support the coalition but who have not been given the opportunity to organize themselves," he says. "They feel they have been sidelined."
The Governing Council, however, was appointed by CPA head Paul Bremer, who holds all legislative and executive authority in Iraq. Though he chose its members to reflect a wide range of ethnic, religious, and political currents, it is by no means demo cratically representative.
"A sovereign Governing Council would lack legitimacy," says one European diplomat here. "Why should it be a government?"
Granting the council sovereignty, he warns, "might encourage its members to stay, and this is meant to be a transitional arrangement." Something must be done to clarify the transition, though, the diplomat adds, even if the French timetable for elections early next year is "unrealistic."
"The problem is that the Americans have not yet set any dates, it is all quite open," he argues. "Peace has to be brought by the Iraqi people themselves, and the international community should give them a light at the end of the tunnel that will give a positive impulse for them to seize their responsibilities."
On one point, however, Iraqi leaders, foreign observers, and US officials are in agreement: Elections would be impossible in Iraq in the foreseeable future.
However quickly a constitution might be written and approved, the current atmosphere of lawlessness would make political campaigning life-threatening for candidates, the country has no reliable census on which to base electoral rolls, political parties are in their infancy and poorly organized, and an electoral law would need to be written before any vote could be held.