The majority Shiite Muslims in Iraq want power so badly - after decades of brutal suppression by Saddam Hussein and the Sunni minority - that they have taken to the streets, demanding direct elections within six months, even if the voting would be messy.
Not possible, say the US occupiers, who asked the UN on Tuesday to support their plan: an interim government chosen by local councils, with a constitution and elections later.
The UN has already hinted it agrees that fair elections cannot be organized so fast in a nation still in conflict and turmoil. Its final decision, perhaps coming next week, is likely to carry enough legitimacy that the Shiites' grand ayatollah, Ali Sistani, will call off the protests. Some 100,000 people marched in Baghdad Monday.
Mr. Sistani must know he is in a bind. As an unelected leader, he hardly has the legitimacy among non-Shiite Iraqis to call for quick democracy. His authority lies in one sect of Islam, not in secular governance.
And the fact that he would incite demonstrations just reinforces the perception that Shiites would be as domineering as Sunni leaders if they were to win a badly run election without a constitution in place that safeguards minority rights.
Still, the United States, as both liberator and occupier, has yet to win the trust needed to have its appointed Governing Council accepted as legitimate. That has forced President Bush to go twice to the United Nations for help, or rather for legitimacy.
A better-managed postwar occupation might have prevented this standoff between the US and the Shiites. Perhaps this latest crisis will show Iraq's three major groups (Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds) that the principle of democracy lies in nonviolent consensus and compromise.