With Iraq hurtling towards sovereignty, US administrator Paul Bremer is running out of time.
His team is working hard to create an aura of inevitably around June 30, the scheduled date for the restoration of a limited form of sovereignty to Iraq.
Officials have fanned out across Iraq to explain the plan, and Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority has started to loosen the reins. This week, the health ministry was released from CPA control, the first of 25 ministries to be put in Iraqi hands over the next three months.
But with fewer than 100 days to go before the Governing Council takes over from the US-led coalition, the leadership here has yet to resolve Iraq's most fundamental challenge - how an independent Iraq should divide power between its Shiite majority and large minorities like the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
It's a question so fundamental to Iraq's future it overshadows all of the short-term successes. And the obstacles to resolving it appear to be mounting, not diminishing.
Adnan Pachachi, one of America's closest allies on its appointed Governing Council, says he's confident the problems can be resolved - but isn't quite sure how. Asked on Wednesday what can be done, he replied "it's too early to be asking this question."
The US is hoping the greatest short-term advantage to the hand over will be a reduction in horrific attacks like the one that took place in the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah Wednesday. Four US contractors were killed in a roadside ambush and AP television footage showed their mutilated bodies being dragged through the streets by residents, many chanting anti-US slogans.
A UN team is currently in Iraq to discuss how to set up elections and construct an interim government. Currently, the government is expected to consist of the 25 Governing Councils plus an undetermined number of new officials. Koffi Annan's special Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to arrive in the next week to negotiate a compromise among Iraq's political factions. But even before he arrives, one of Iraq's most enigmatic and powerful players has begun throwing wrenches into the works.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shiite cleric elected by no one but revered by millions of Iraqis, has warned that the current transition plan is a recipe for internal conflict. In a letter to Mr. Brahimi earlier this month, Ms. Sistani said he would snub the envoy unless the UN brands the transitional constitution, agreed upon by the US and it's Governing Council appointees, "nonbinding."
The US had been hoping that UN support for the constitution would ease complaints like Sistani's and make the transition plan look more legitimate.
Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Institute, says compromise is still possible. "I think that Sistani and his allies have it within them."
But what compromises are possible, particularly over the issue of the so-called "Kurdish veto," are unclear. The Kurds worry that without guarantees, any new Iraqi state will simply ignore their demands and move to retake the autonomous area they carved out for themselves in the north of the country in the 1990s.
The essence of the veto is the transitional constitution's Article 61, which says that if a two-thirds majority in any three Iraqi provinces rejects an eventual permanent constitution, scheduled to be written next year, then the constitution will go back to the drawing board. That gives Iraq's three Kurdish provinces, who want broad autonomy for the center, strong leverage to have their demands met.
So far, the Kurds position has been helped by Mr. Bremer who was able to use his slot as a top administrator as a bully pulpit, drawing concessions from Iraqi leaders with warnings that US control will simply be extended if they don't make tough choices. But all of the players are now well aware that Mr. Bremer will be replaced by a US ambassador on June 30, and that simple knowledge is already afecting his power and prestige.
"With the June 30 timeline, at what point does Bremer lose his powers? It's not June 29, it's some point before that, and we're seeing that process begin," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq specialist now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
Coalition officials say the question of the veto is only the most fraught of several problems that have to be addressed in the coming months, with other outstanding questions including the creation of political party and electoral laws that could have a major impact on which parties have a chance to compete for power.
Mr. Barkey worries there are no obvious solutions to these questions, even as the US and the UN have set themselves a deadline of May 1 to find answers.
Though Ayatollah Sistani isn't part of Iraq's current power structure, he has more support than the members of the Governing Council and has repeatedly forced compromises on the US. But to critics, his current demands lie less in the realm of compromise than of wanting to see Shiite supremacy established in Iraq after centuries in which they may have made up a majority of the population, but never held power.
"The governing council is a tool of the US, and they're seeking to put restrictions on us so that we'll never be able to have a constitution of our own,'' says Taher Abdul al-Aamea,who runs a textile shop in Khadhimiya, a Baghdad neighborhood built around a Shiite shrine.
Mr. Aamea recently signed a petition circulated by Sistani's supporters demanding revisions to the transitional constitution. He worries that without changes, the suicide attack that killed dozens in his neighborhood during a major Shiite festival at the start of March will become the norm. "I worry that today will be better than tomorrow."
Such complaints ignore the legitimate concerns that the US and many Iraqi leaders have in balancing interests to avoid having a flawed democracy that could erupt into conflict among various factions.
One man who understands those risks is Hamid Bayati, a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leader sits on the Governing Council and agreed to accept the transitional law, despite sharing many of Sistani's reservations about its substance.
"Of course we have concerns, but we had a difficult choice to make: Either agree to a flawed document, or stop the transitional process dead,'' says Dr. Bayati.
"Since that would imply an extended occupation, we decided to let the process go forward and hope to amend some of the difficult articles as we go."
He says SCIRI has problems with Article 61 but conceded that it could play a positive role, particularly if it forces everyone at the negotiating table to agree to the tough compromises that Iraq needs.
Dr. Bayati's major concern is that the concession has been made by the appointed Governing Council, and could lack legitimacy in the eyes of average Iraqis.
A bigger concern for many Iraqis is how "real" the post June 30 sovereignty will be, particularly with the US making it clear that it will retain control over all security forces, and a current draft law on the table for the Ministry of Defense that seeks to give the US the power to appoint the minister, and hopefully keep him in for a five-year term.
"A key question here is how constraining can the US be in determining the choices [the leaders of an interim government] have to make," says Stephen Krasner, who left President Bush's National Security Council in 2002 and is now director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Stanford Institute for International Studies in California.
Krasner says it has to look like a turnover to local authorities even as the US, with its military presence and funds, retains some leverage over the transition. "You want to offer a recognition of authority, while not granting full freedom of action. It's just that you don't want to say it out loud."