With daily gun battles between Sunni insurgents and US Marines in Fallujah, and the tense standoff between US forces and militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Najaf, the United States was expected to turn to its appointed Governing Council to mediate a peaceful solution.
The much-vaunted council was supposed to put an Iraqi face on the occupation. "The Governing Council will be involved in all the significant decisions,'' Paul Bremer, the top US administrator here, said last July. "It will be a huge step forward."
But today, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's Iraq envoy, is writing a transition plan for Iraq that, if he gets his way, will freeze Governing Council members out of Iraq's transitional government.
To council member Ghazi al-Yawar, the conclusion is simple. "We've failed,'' he says. With a trace of disgust, he complains that a sectarian council, more focused on survival than on serious issues, has simply added to the country's problems.
"We sit in the council while the country is burning and argue over procedure,'' says Sheikh Yawar, a Sunni tribal leader who lived abroad until last year. "We're like the Byzantines in Constantinople, debating whether angels are male or female with the barbarians at the gate."
Under Mr. Brahimi's plan for a transitional government, all 25 members of the US-appointed council would be culled in favor of a team of technocrats to be chosen next month by Brahimi's team and influential Iraqis, with US input. The group would take power in July and shepherd Iraq to elections next January - in which, ideally, they would not participate.
Aides to Brahimi say he's uncomfortable with a continuing role for the Governing Council, fearing they could try to manipulate electoral laws and procedures that would deprive any elected government of the legitimacy most believe is needed to calm tensions.
"The members of the caretaker government must be careful not to use their positions to try and give advantage to any political party or group," Brahimi told the UN Security Council Tuesday. "In order to prevent even the perception they might do so, it would be best if the members of the caretaker government" don't later run for election.
Governing Council member Yawar spoke two weeks ago as Iraq descended into the most volatile period to date of the occupation. But as the US has searched for Iraqi mediators, the council has been largely silent.
Instead, a Governing Council subcommittee spent the past few weeks putting the final touches on a new national flag. Abandoning the current flag - with the words "God is Great" in Arabic and the red, black, and green color scheme favored by almost all Arab nations - the new flag is mostly white, with blue stripes and a blue crescent symbolizing Islam.
But to many, it resembles Israel's flag - and it has crystallized the view of many that the council is out of touch.
"Unfortunately, the Governing Council has failed to play a constructive role in fixing Iraq's deep and important problems,'' says Ayatollah Imad al-Deen Awadi, a Shiite cleric, who believes the unpopularity of the council has driven many Iraqis to religious figures for political leadership, like Shiite cleric Sadr, whose anti-US militia control the shrine city of Najaf.
"The people are suffering and they're worried about the flag," says an incredulous Wissam al-Ekabi, a student at Baghdad University. "The Governing Council is supposed to be fixing the security situation and creating jobs. But this seems to be all they're up to."
His friend, Alaa Muhammed, adds: "They clearly didn't talk to many Iraqi people about this. The flag is meaningless, just like the council."
Brahimi's growing influence over the transition process, as the US seeks to broaden international involvement here in response to failing support for occupation inside Iraq, has been deeply threatening to some members of the Governing Council, who have gone on the offensive against Brahimi in the hopes of preserving a role for themselves in the transition.
Leading the charge has been Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC).
The former exile's political movement was funded for years by the US government, and he was originally slated by the Pentagon to run Iraq's postinvasion government. But his lack of evident domestic support forced that plan to be scrapped last April. And Mr. Chalabi has increasingly fallen out of favor with the US.
Chalabi told Fox News Sunday that Brahimi is "a controversial figure. He's not a unifying figure." Al-Mutamar newspaper, linked to Chalabi's INC, has grown increasingly strident in its attacks on Brahimi.
In a front-page opinion piece Wednesday, the paper accused Brahimi and Adnan Pachachi, a Governing Council member who has welcomed UN involvement, of "cooking up a plan" to deny a political role for legitimate Iraqi leaders so that they can form a government "from behind the curtains."
The paper also alleged that the marriage of a Brahimi sister to a member of Jordan's royal family has tainted his independence. Chalabi was convicted in absentia on embezzlement charges in Jordan in the early 1990s, and is still a wanted man in the kingdom.
"Politicians like Chalabi know that their best chance at power is maintaining their current, appointed positions,'' says an Iraqi political scientist who is advising Brahimi on the transition plan. "The moment they come up against free and fair elections, they're finished."
Brahimi says it needs to be recognized that no Iraqi government will be truly representative until elections are also so, and has urged that the transitional government refrain from locking Iraq into any policies that could fuel the country's internecine conflicts.
"The caretaker government also needs to be mindful, at all times, of the fact that it has not been democratically elected,'' he told the UN Security Council. "It should therefore [refrain] from entering into long-term commitments that can and should await decision by an elected government. There is no substitute for the legitimacy that comes from free and fair elections."