US Secretary of State Colin Powell says Iraq's new constitution could be written in six months. The US sees that as the first step in a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis within a year. The 24-person Iraqi Governing Council opened formal talks Wednesday in Baghdad on how to select a new constitution for Iraq.
But interviews with council members and aides this week reveal a sharp divide within the council - between Shiite Islamists who want a national vote for a constitutional convention and the Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who worry their interests would be drowned out by a sea of Shiite voices.
For the US, this points to a much longer constitutional drafting process than six months, and probably a longer stay in Iraq. "Colin Powell's timetable is completely unrealistic,'' says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an independent Shiite member of the council.
Iraqis say the struggle has high stakes. "The battle over the constitution is going to be the most important battle of my life,'' says Kurdish rebel leader-turned-politician Noshirwan, who led the assault on the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk in a 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime. "This gets to the question of whether there will be a united and stable Iraq."
Iraq has rarely been either of those things, and an appointed body that roughly reflects the major sectarian and ethnic divisions is being asked to accomplish what no one else has in the country's 80-year history - and fast.
Iraq's diversity and the traditional dominance of government by a Sunni Arab elite - from the Ottoman Empire to British rule to Hussein's Baathist regime - explains why the process is so delicate, and why the council will find it hard to make a decision.
Though an accurate census isn't available, the Shiites are concentrated in the south and estimated to be 60 percent of the population, Arab Sunnis are mostly in the center of the country and are about 20 percent, while Kurds, most of whom are Sunni but see themselves as Kurds first, number about 15 percent and are dominant in the far north.
The groups are split on the question of how quickly to draft a constitution. "The council hasn't decided on how it will decide yet,'' says Ahmed al-Barrak, a Shiite human rights lawyer who is seen as a moderate. "We know this is linked to sovereignty, so we want it to happen as fast as possible. But it's hard to put a deadline on it."
Key Shiite religious leaders, including council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) are insisting that nothing short of a vote will do, a position that Mr. Hakim reiterated on a trip to Iran this week, where he met with that country's Shiite religious leaders.
Even more important was a religious ruling, or fatwa, handed down by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in June, which called for an election before the writing of a constitution. Mr. Sistani, usually reluctant to dabble in politics, is Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric. His influence, experts say, is hard to overestimate.
For the moment, the debate hinges on what might appear to be the technical issue of who will write the constitution and how they will be selected.
But the players inside Iraq see it as a proxy for the bigger question of what kind of country Iraq will become. How much autonomy will the Kurds receive? How important will Islam be in the constitution? What steps will be taken to ensure minority representation?
The US, Iraq's minorities, and many Shiite intellectuals themselves worry an elected constitutional convention could write a constitution that sows the seeds of conflict by ignoring minority rights.
Worse, it could be dominated by religious figures who might call for a theocracy, despite polling that shows must Iraqis want a largely secular government.
In short, though the US said it invaded Iraq to bring democracy, what it's more interested in now is pluralism - something that would help keep Iraq together and head off extremism in the wake of so many years of dictatorship.
"We think this is for the Iraqis to decide, but we also believe that it's much better that a representative balance of people write the constitution rather than have a more democratic process that could produce a result that's deeply flawed," says an official from the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA has veto power over the decisions of the Governing Council.
Mr. Rubaie, when asked who the most influential member of the Governing Council could be in reaching a compromise he said "Sistani." When it was pointed out that Sistani isn't on the governing council he said: "Yes, I know. But it's still Sistani."
"He said in a very explicit way that the drafters of the constitution must be elected, and that carries tremendous weight," says Rubaie, a British-educated medical doctor who was a human rights activist in exile until Hussein fell.
Rubaie says one solution could be to convince Sistani to accept an election among elite figures in society - for instance with only the heads of trade groups and other organizations eligible for election.
Almost everyone is afraid to lose out. Many Shiites are afraid their chance to rule Iraq will be pulled away from them by machinations on the council; Sunni Arabs fear domination by the Shiites; the Kurds fear domination by either group.
Council members say even the issue of replacing Akila al-Hashemi, a moderate Shiite who was assassinated in September, has become contentious. Her death left the council with 12 Shiite members, and 12 from other groups, almost all of whom say they'd like the drafters of the constitution to be selected by the current council rather than elected by the people.
"I don't believe the Shiites are a majority in Iraq. Before the war, we thought they were 20 percent of the population at most,'' says Mohammed al-Helow, a Sunni who works as an accountant in Baghdad. "I think this country will be even more chaotic if the Shiites are allowed to take charge."
"Look," says Rubaie, "there is a Sunni bloc in the council that believes they have a right to rule Iraq, that they've kept us united for a long time and they're the only ones that can do the job. Some of them can't accept that they're a minority now, and are insisting on a census to prove it."
The essence of a successful process will be compromise. While many council members say they're committed to just that, other observers worry that spirit won't prevail when controversial issues are brought to the table.
In their minds are the uprisings after the 1991 Gulf War, in which Shiites in the South and Kurds in the north killed many Sunni Arabs, and Hussein's regime responded with a bloody crackdown.
"I worry that the GC members don't have the capacity to compromise,'' says Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "We need people who have the capacity for national reconciliation, but I don't see them in the council. I don't think the Americans picked a broad enough group."