A major roadblock to selecting a more representative government for Iraq by mid-2004 could soon disappear - if the UN becomes more involved in verifying the process that will determine Iraq's leaders.
In November, spurred on by a stubborn insurgency and Iraqi frustration with the US occupation, the US created a road map that hinges on the selection of a broad group of leaders by July. They would then shepherd Iraq to real elections in 2005 and the creation of a new constitution.
But the plan, which is backed by Iraq's major political groups, has been threatened by Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani, probably the most revered of Iraq's Shiite clerics. He has demanded full democratic elections by June, and leaders of the Shiite community - about 60 percent of Iraq's population - have said they won't defy his wishes.
But this week, in a key shift, Mr. Sistani said he could live with the US approach if the UN were involved in verifying the US position that holding fair elections by June isn't possible. The US has not commented on whether it would accept UN assessment of its election plan.
Council Member Mowafak al-Rubaiae says a letter was sent to the UN Security Council on Monday, and says he anticipates that their participation should smooth over what he calls "the major contentious issue" affecting the return of sovereignty to Iraq.
To be sure, the election is not the only contentious issue.
Another major challenge to the transitional process is the Kurdish demand for special autonomy that would enshrine the de facto separate state they created in the 1990s, when the US-enforced no fly zone allowed Kurdish guerrillas to take control of a wide swathe of the country's northeast.
The Governing Council is set to approve a "fundamental law," essentially an interim constitution, by Feb. 28, and Kurdish political parties are pushing for special rights, including a veto over the presence of federal troops in their area. The transitional constitution will set the ground rules for the government that the US hopes to hand sovereignty to on July 1.
Wednesday in Kirkuk - an oil-rich town that is home to a large number of Kurds but is not currently part of the autonomous zone - a Sunni Arab-led protest against Kurdish political domination of the city deteriorated into a gun battle. Protesters and gunmen fought at the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; at least two people were killed.
"We're all in agreement that the new Iraq should be a federation, but the difficult question is what kind of federation we will adopt,'' says Ahmed Shia'a al-Barrak, a human rights lawyer and council member. "There are still a lot of opinions about how to proceed."
The big question mark over the voting process is whether the UN will agree with the Governing Council's and America's concerns about holding elections too soon. The Shiites, a mistrusted majority under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab dominated rule, worry that without democratic elections they'll continue to be denied what they feel is their rightful place in the leadership of Iraq.
But Mr. Rubaie, himself a Shiite, says he believes the logic of putting off elections for the next year will prove inescapable. "Quick and dirty elections could produce an overwhelming Shiite majority council from many parts of Iraq, and that will not be credible or good for Iraqi democracy he says."
The key concern for members on the council, he says, is that there's not enough time to settle the delicate problem of creating fair and representative voting wards throughout the country.
Take a city like Basra, a Shiite bastion in the far south of the country that is nevertheless about 10 percent Sunni. Were a simple first-past-the-post vote held using the national registry of Iraqis set up by the UN oil for food program, as key aides to Sistani have suggested, cities like Basra could end up with 100 percent Shiite representation. Such imbalance would reinforce Sunni Arab suspicions about the whole process.
In even more ethnically and religiously complicated cities like the northern Mosul, which has large Kurdish and Arab populations, the situation could prove even worse, he says.
"Sistani is asking for a general election as his first choice, because it is the most direct way of expressing people's opinions," says Rubaie, who along with council member Ahmed Chalabi has been meeting regularly with Sistani and other clerics on the issue. "But he's agreed that if the UN says that for technical reasons a fair election can't be held now, that he will accept what we're proposing."
A transitional assembly the Governing Council and proconsul Paul Bremer agreed to create by June is intended to be a "big tent," including as broad a swathe of Iraq's political and sectarian divisions as possible. That would include some of the religious radicals who have been the biggest critics of the occupation. "It's better to have people inside the tent spitting out, rather than outside the tent spitting in,'' says Rubaie.
A committee set up by the Governing Council and existing provincial assemblies would select a slate of notables representative of each of Iraq's 18 governates, and then submit that slate to the people for either ratification or rejection. If rejected, the slates would be changed to take into account the public's concerns, and then resubmitted.
So far, though, Bremer has been reluctant to give full control over the selection process to Iraqis, worried that it could leave too many extremists in the interim government, says one council official.
"He wants a managed election, but the Iraqi people will see right through that,'' says the councilor, who asked not to be named. "For this process to be worth our time, it has to be put strictly into our hands."