Iraq's interim Governing Council missed a deadline for drawing up a temporary constitution, with deep divisions emerging over the political status of Islam, Kurdish autonomy, and women's rights. All are key topics that will define the future Iraq.
Some argue that the heated debate, taking place under intense pressure from US administrator Paul Bremer, is nothing more than the birth pains of a fledgling democracy. Others suggest that it is emblematic of the council's sectarian composition and represents an ominous portent of the future clash between religion and secularism in Iraq.
The 25-member council had until Feb. 28 to pass an interim constitution, known here as the Fundamental Law, which would provide the basic legal framework for a permanent constitution after full elections are held.
Council members insist that agreement will be reached soon. Nonetheless, the delay in finalizing the Fundamental Law is a another setback to US efforts for a smooth transition of sovereignty to an Iraqi assembly at the end of June. It also threatens to delay national elections which the United Nations said last week could be held by the end of the year if planning begins now.
"Failure is not an option. We have to get this document signed, dusted, and finished," said Muwaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite member of the council, during a late-night press conference Saturday. "There's no other option, there's no other alternative. This is a must and all Iraqi people are waiting for us to get this document finished."
The most divisive issue is the role of Islam in the constitution, pitting Shiite Islamists on the council against their secular counterparts.
On Friday, several Shiite members stormed out of the building after the council voted to annul a decree that placed civil issues in the hands of religious courts. The decree, which was narrowly approved by the council in December, sparked wide condemnation, particularly from women's groups. Two women council members who missed the original vote, demanded and got a second poll, which they won, 15 to 9. (One council member was away.)
For secularists, such as Samir Adil, a senior official with the Workers' Communist Party, the annulment of the personal status decree is a victory against religious interference.
"The Islamists are trying to impose religion on society. But Iraqi society is secular," he says. "We are calling for the separation of the law and education from religion. We are taking a strong stand against the sectarian disputes that threaten to tear our society in two."
As evidence of what he says is Iraq's inherently secular nature, Mr. Adil cites a poll conducted last August by Zogby International in which 60 percent of Iraqis said they preferred a government that lets everyone practice their own religion over an Islamic government.
Yet many Iraqis want to include some tenets of Islamic law in a future constitution, albeit not on the comprehensive scale of neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mr. Bremer, the head of the CPA, has threatened to veto any constitution based on Islamic law, sparking angry charges of interference from Islamists.
"When the Americans interfered with this, they deformed democracy," says Sheikh Humum Hammoudi, a senior official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "They have put democracy in confrontation with religion which is not in our interests."
He says fears of an Islamic state being created in Iraq are unfounded. Shiite religious leaders, specifically Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite cleric, have rejected an Islamic government.
"We want elections and a multisecular society and the [Muslim clerics] are not to have political authority," he says.
Islam's relationship to the constitution is not a black-and-white issue, but one painted in shades of gray, granting room for dialogue and compromise.
According to Sheikh Hammoudi, there are three options. The first is to base the constitution fully on sharia (Islamic law). The second is to have sharia as the main source of the constitution. The third proposal is to acknowledge that Islam is the principle religion of Iraq.
"We support the second option," Sheikh Hammoudi says.
Still, Mr. Dulame says the CPA made a "big mistake" in paying excessive heed to the views of Sistani. A US plan to hold caucus-style elections to form a transitional government was scrapped after Sistani voiced objections and called instead for a nationwide poll.
The Governing Council, also a creation of the US, has faced its own challenges.
Many Iraqis view the council with deep suspicion, saying it is unrepresentative, lacks credibility, and serves the interests of political parties. By allocating council seats along religious and ethnic lines, the CPA made a fundamental mistake, says Sadoun al-Dulame, general director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. The council consists of 13 Shiites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Christian, and one Turkoman. The result, he says, is the current deadlock over the contentious issues of religion and ethnicity.
"This is the Iraq of the past," he says. "The mentality of Iraqis has changed since the 1920s so I don't understand why the CPA is pushing to return us to the past."
Instead, the CPA should have split the council between Islamists, nationalists and liberals, Mr. Dulame says. "It is better to divide by political orientation than by tribes, ethnicity and sect."
Certainly, the debate over Kurdish autonomy goes to the heart of Iraq's unity. The Kurds have enjoyed 12 years of effective self-rule under the protection of the West and see little reason why they should relinquish their autonomy once more to Baghdad, long the source of oppression against the Kurdish people.
The Kurds are calling for a referendum that would guarantee their autonomy. They want an additional protocol added to the temporary constitution that would grant the Kurdish national assembly - the de facto government in Kurdistan - sweeping powers. They would include jurisdiction over the region's mineral wealth which includes the oil-rich Kirkuk district, establishing a Kurdish National Guard, and denying access to the Iraqi Army without the assembly's consent.