The pace - and nature - of a democratic reform plan announced just two weeks ago is being challenged by arguably the most powerful figure in Iraq today.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a key leader of the country's Muslim Shiite community, wants direct national elections to create a provisional government.
The US-appointed Governing Council of top Iraqi officials is divided over whether to oppose the cleric or finesse his demand with partial local elections.
The dispute highlights the emerging contours of a power struggle between the majority Shiite population and other Iraqi factions. The outcome of the latest challenge could determine how soon elected representatives will take charge of Iraq, and whether it will happen before next year's US presidential elections.
Mr. Sistani's chief criticism of a plan signed Nov. 15 between the Governing Council and the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority is that it fails to allow the Iraqi people to elect representatives to a Transitional National Assembly which is to be created by the end of June and will enjoy full sovereign powers.
"In principle, no one objects to elections but we can't have them now," says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the Governing Council. "We need to have a census, better security, the return of those who were forced to leave Iraq under the old regime. An election needs to be legal, which it cannot be while we are under occupation."
The Nov. 15 agreement provides for a Fundamental Law to be in place by February which will serve as an interim constitution.
Then a series of meetings in each of Iraq's 18 provinces will appoint 250 members to the assembly. Once the new assembly is in place, the Governing Council and the CPA will dissolve. Full nationwide elections must be held no later than March 15, 2005.
Ibrahim al-Jafaari, a Shiite who is considered Ayatollah Sistani's representative on the council, says that elections can and should be held before next July.
"Any elections are better than none at all," he says.
Sistani recommended basing elections on the food rationing cards handed out to Iraqis in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed on Iraq.
Opponents of swift elections argue that not all Iraqis possess rationing cards. Some lost their cards as punishment by Hussein's regime. The Kurds in their near- autonomous enclave in the north did not need them. And there were the thousands of Iraqi exiles who lived abroad during the 1990s.
"You can shoot holes in the idea," says Mowafak al-Rubaie, a British educated former member of the Shiite Dawa party, "but it's better to have an election, even if its quick and dirty, than to have no election at all. If we have another body, this time the Transitional National Assembly, and it does not have the legitimacy of public support, then we might as well continue with the Governing Council."
Many Sunnis oppose a nationwide election which could result in an assembly dominated by Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.
"The [mainly Sunni] Kurds do not have much concern. But the Arab Sunnis are really worried about an enlarged role of the Shiites. That needs to be taken into consideration," Mr. Othman says. "We should reach a formula that doesn't threaten anybody."
More than three decades of brutal Baathist rule destroyed Iraq's political diversity, although the Shiite religious structure remained in place, vastly weakened by Saddam Hussein's rule. The downfall of Hussein's regime has provided an opportunity for the Shiites to flex their political muscles for the first time.
While that has led to the emergence of firebrand clerics, notably Moqtada al-Sadr, son of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a cleric murdered by the old regime, it has also allowed more moderate Shiite authorities, primarily Sistani, to play an influential role in helping shape the country's future.
"The problem for the US at the moment is that it cannot afford to alienate the Shiite majority, since many Sunni Arabs are already so alienated," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an authority on Shiism. "At some point the CPA and the Governing Council will have to decide whether they can meet Sistani's demands, or risk going against him." Mr. Jafaari says he will meet Sistani in the next three days to assess the cleric's flexibility.
"I think he will stick to the principle of elections," he says. "I am not sure he will accept a compromise and I am not sure what compromise there can be. Either you have elections or you don't."
Another complaint by Sistani concerns the agreement's failure to recognize and guarantee the Islamic identity of Iraq. That, however, is no obstacle, according to Jafaari, and will be included in the Fundamental Law.
"Everybody agrees on this," he says.
Adding to the complications is a demand by the many of the members to maintain the Governing Council in some capacity beyond the July 1 deadline for disbandment.
"Some of them who belong to political parties are worried that they will no longer remain in office. The CPA says that the agreement calls for end of the council by July 1 and the Americans won't change it," says Othman.
That has reinforced complaints from several members that the Nov. 15 agreement was pushed through too quickly by the CPA, led by Paul Bremer, the American overseer in Iraq. They say it needed to be discussed further, and they blame the haste on the Bush administration's desire to rid itself of the burdens of occupation well before next year's presidential election.
"We should have taken more time to discuss the agreement between the ministers, ourselves, and with Sistani," says Raja Khuzai, a Shiite doctor who is one of two women sitting on the Governing Council.
Another said that during a meeting to discuss the agreement, Mr. Bremer demanded a swift conclusion "or he would tell the media that the council is prolonging the American occupation".
"I was surprised when he said that," says Jafaari, confirming the incident. "I hadn't heard him speak like that before. Sometimes people say things that they don't mean seriously."
But the incident reflects the irritation felt by some council members at what they say is a one-sided relationship between the Governing Council and the CPA.
"From the start, the CPA has the upper hand to rule Iraq. We are secondary," says one. "Yes, we issue laws, but they are not binding until Bremer has signed them. We are obliged to put before them everything we want to do, but they are not obliged to tell us anything. When we disagree, the CPA usually gets its way."