A large United Nations team arrived in Iraq on Saturday, hoping to untangle a dispute over democratic process that has pitted the United States against Iraq's leading Shiite cleric. The UN team has begun consulting with Iraqi leaders on the feasibility of direct elections this year. Elections would satisfy Iraq's majority Shiite population - but the US says they're impossible to hold without more than a year of preparation and improved security.
Though the US isn't trusted by large sections of the Iraqi public, local opinion polls find a much higher degree of respect for the UN, and the US hopes that the mission's findings will mirror its own and bolster its position. Though the mission is of undetermined length, it will probably be weeks before it will come up with recommendations.
But it's clear that the US plan for caucus-based elections will not survive in its present form - the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has told his millions of followers that it's simply unacceptable. Ayatollah Sistani has told the UN that if it finds direct elections can't be held soon, then it will have to come up with a third alternative.
"The US administration is going to have to backtrack on its own mechanism of having caucuses, which the Iraqis neither like nor understand," says Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He says the restraints on full elections soon are clear and that the process will have to be much more representative if it is to win the credibility the US craves.
"If [the US hurries] through with a flawed system, then [Iraqi insurgents] will seize on those flaws to justify their ongoing resistance."
Baghdad's souks and cafes buzz with rumors about America's true intentions here, and few of the rumors are good. There's the widespread belief that the US invaded the country to take control of its oil, or that the Americans are dedicated to installing a pliable leader who answers to Washington. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction has bolstered these doubts among Iraqis.
A group of Shiite men playing dominoes and sipping tea in Baghdad's poor, sprawling Sadr City area are eager to talk about the future. "If the Americans control the process, they simply put their own guy in power - an American Saddam [Hussein],'' says Hassan Abud, a builder. "They said they came here to find weapons of mass destruction, but they haven't found any. Now they say they want us to have democracy, but they won't let us have an election."
Shiite skepticism comes from their traditional position as second-class citizens in Iraq, stretching back to the Ottoman Empire and extending through Mr. Hussein's regime. The country's Sunni Arab minority has dominated the government and bureaucracy for more than 100 years, and many Shiites see in the US plan an attempt to block them from what they see as a rightful ruling position in Iraqi society.
Some also believe that the US and its head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, are seeking to manage the process rather than face any of the nasty surprises that a free election could produce. "Mr. Bremer is afraid of losing control," says one Governing Council member. "But if some control isn't given up, how will the new Iraqi leadership have the credibility it needs?"
Even before the UN began its work, its team leader, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that he's leaning towards the US position that a direct election by June 30 isn't a good idea. "If you get your priorities wrong, elections are a very divisive process," Mr. Brahimi said last week. "They create tensions. They create competition ... and one has to be certain they will not do more harm than good," he said.
So what then, are the options? Analysts like Mr. Jouejati favor delay and a crash process to prepare the country for elections. Some members of the Governing Council who are close to the US say that if elections aren't held then power could simply be shifted to them, or perhaps to an expanded group that includes the council's current 25 members, supplemented by other high-profile figures.
Shiites who agree with Sistani, some of whom sit on the governing council, say partial elections in the more peaceful sections of the country could work.
"If Sistani's plan can't be done, then we demand some other sort of elections,'' says Humam Hamid, the head of the Baghdad office for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the largest Shiite political parties, whose head, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, sits on the Governing Council. "Five times we met with the Americans before the war, and they promised five times that the occupation wouldn't last more than one year. A two-year occupation would be a new tyranny. The most important thing in a new democratic country is to have free elections."
Since November, the Bush administration has been adamant that sovereignty would be given to an Iraqi government by June 30. CPA officials have said they believe a handover could undermine support for the anti-US insurgency and ease conditions in Iraq.
And that's still the official position of the coalition. "We think it is very important not only to meet the request to continually hand over authority to the Iraqi people, but also to stick to a deadline that we agreed upon with the Iraqi leadership,'' says coalition spokesman Dan Senor.
But US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a meeting with Congress last week that it was possible the date could be shifted "depending on the way the world evolves."
Lost in the debate over elections has been another of Sistani's demands: He wants the continued US presence to be voted on by Iraq's people.
Jouejati says this has left the US in a bind. "Ayatollah Sistani has come out with his proposal for one man, one vote, and why not? It made sense in the case of South Africa. But this is a source of pain for the Americans because they wouldn't like to see a Shiite majority in the country."