The United States is preparing yet another rejigging of its plan for handing over authority in Iraq, with direct election of a temporary government one possible way out of a deepening crisis.
Another possibility is expansion of the existing, US-named Iraqi Governing Council. Or, it's conceivable that the June 30 handover date, set only last Nov. 15 in a deal worked out between occupation authorities and the IGC, might now slip - although this option seems the least likely for US political reasons.
As the White House modifies plans and backs off some of its more grandiose visions for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, what matters most - especially to US voters in this presidential election year - is that Iraq come out of the immediate postwar period stable, nonthreatening, and demonstrably better off, foreign-policy experts say. "It doesn't have to be a Wolfowitzian democracy," says Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon, referring to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's vision of Iraq as a democratic beacon to the region. "Nor does it have to be an exemplary Keynesian economy. But in the three basic bins of security, politics, and economics," he adds, "there will have to be progress beyond what we're seeing so far for Iraq to be not necessarily a campaign asset, but at least not a vulnerability, for President Bush."
Exactly what is required for the postwar period to be considered a "success" continues to change, especially as the White House shifts the rationale for war - from the original concentration on weapons of mass destruction to the current focus on ridding a key region in the war on terror of a brutal and dangerous dictatorship.
But most Middle East experts say the idealistic vision of Iraq as a kind of democratic and free-market lighthouse matters less than a picture of progress toward a stable and peaceful democracy.
"We have these two extremes of the political spectrum, the neoconservative idealists and the war critics, with very demanding expectations," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Both basically argue that if we leave without having transformed Iraq, it wasn't worth it."
But Mr. Clawson adds that for the vast majority of Americans, if Iraqis seem better off, even if conditions are far from perfect, "that will be OK." He explains, "People understand that building a democracy takes a long time."
That view is echoed by some Iraqi leaders who see a danger either in Iraqis pressing all-or-nothing positions now, or in others expecting too much too soon. "You have to remember that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq evolved to be a failed state," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. "People have to understand that context in order to assess the progress so far."
Particularly for American voters, it matters little exactly how progress towards self-rule is made. But it does matter whether the sense of security is improving, both for American soldiers - who will number about 100,000 by the time of the planned handover this summer - and for Iraqis themselves.
The problem is that if US doesn't get the political transition right, that could lead to greater instability and further deterioration in the security situation - and this would affect people's perception of the Iraq project. That's why the delicate negotiations with Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders, who represent more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population, are so important. As Henri Barkey, a former State Department expert on Iraq who is now at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania notes, the Shiite masses have been peaceful and nonviolent up to now in their expressions of opposition to the current transition plan.
They are closely following Iraq's premier Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is moderate and supportive of democracy, but who continues to oppose even modifications to the plan for provincial caucuses while demanding direct elections.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to announce as early as monday his decision on a US request that he dispatch a team of experts to Baghdad to evaluate the feasibility of direct elections.
But perceptions of Iraq as a "success" would be gravely tested if Shiite frustrations boiled over. "Up to now, the violence has been largely from the Sunni former power structure, but just imagine if the US - sticking to an unworkable plan or putting its own bench marks first - pushed the Shiites to that," says Mr. Barkey. "It would be a real disaster."
Judith Yaphé, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington, says the US need only look to history to see what might ensue. "It happened before, in 1920, when a [Shiite] cleric issued a decree calling all to participate in rebellion against the British occupation," she says. "If Sistani got to the point where he decided to issue an order that 'you shall not cooperate with the plan for a transition or cooperate in any way with the occupation,' that would be very bad for us, because it would be followed by a great many Iraqis."
Such scenarios explain why, until the question of Iraq's political transition is sorted out, other goals will take a back seat. For example in the economic sector, original plans for a wide range of industry privatizations have been scaled back, while US and Iraqi authorities are now leaning toward organizing Iraq's oil industry under a state-run company.
That retreat from the free-market vision of a private company with heavy foreign involvement is raising howls from some quarters, but is seen as prudent by other pragmatic observers.
"Look, the reality is that Saddam had a decent plan for modernizing the oil sector, with a state oil company basically retaining control of existing installations, with new fields and development open to foreign investment," says the Washington Institute's Clawson. "It's something that can work, so ... why not start with that?"