United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi returns to Iraq this week to forge a caretaker government for the June 30 turnover of authority and to cultivate an idea for national unity: calling a broad national conference.
Such a conference - whose point would be to rally support for the new government among Iraq's provincial leaders and to raise its national legitimacy - helped in Afghanistan, where Mr. Brahimi was instrumental in formulating an interim government.
In Iraq, it could encourage sometimes mutually suspicious populations to emphasize common goals like stability in the months before elections. A show of unity from the country's geographical divisions and representatives of religious and ethnic groups could deflate the insurgents seeking to disrupt the political transition - and thus help quell the violence now racking the country, Brahimi says.
But a national conference also holds potential pitfalls, for Iraq and the United States, experts say, if it ends up highlighting the country's disunity or resistance to American plans for a limited sovereignty for the new government on July 1.
"It's a wise idea to call a conference of tribal and religious leaders with real authority on the ground, if they can agree not to contest the authority of a relatively modest and weak interim government," says Jack Goldstone, a specialist in transitional governments at the University of California at Davis. "But we have to expect that questions about the US retaining control of military forces and the lack of power of any interim government will come up - and we may be setting ourselves up for answers we don't want to hear."
Brahimi is aiming for a caretaker government - headed by a prime minister, plus largely ceremonial positions of president and two vice presidents - to be named by the end of May. The Algerian diplomat, who is working with "the full support of the US" according to State Department sources, wants those caretaker leaders to be technocrats who would not seek office in the January elections.
In a briefing to the UN Security Council last week on his plans for Iraq's transitional government, Brahimi said the new government should have a month before the June 30 turnover of authority to define its duties and those that are to remain in the hands of American officials - primarily in the security arena.
Brahimi envisions a caretaker government limited to administrative and election-preparation duties, a plan broadly endorsed by the US. Under the plan, a conference with up to 1,500 delegates could take place as early as July.
One idea is that the conference might be given a role in selecting the president and vice presidents as a way of reassuring key populations about power-sharing. The conference could also form the basis for a consultative assembly to work with the caretaker government.
But the conference might also end up a venue for raising Iraqis' concerns, some experts warn: about continuing military command in American hands, for example, and about plans to deny the caretaker government any lawmaking powers.
"Brahimi's hope is that a conference recognizing the authority of the interim government will enhance its credibility among Iraqis," says Mr. Goldstone. "But it will be clear by then that the US is retaining military authority and that the interim government won't be allowed to pass legislation, so it may not be enough."
The problem is - as even most Iraqis recognize - that virtually no Iraqi force is capable of taking over responsibility for security, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Still, he says, that fact, coupled with the limited capacities of the envisioned caretaker government, will be fodder for the insurgents. "There is every reason to anticipate that the resistance will want to portray the new government as the puppet of the Americans," Mr. Clawson says. "What happens when the resistance continues its attacks, the Americans respond in kind, and the interim government is not happy?"
That is why the US simply retaining full military authority is not a solution for Iraqis anticipating a move toward reclaiming sovereignty, says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi and senior program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "If retaining military authority means US troops continue as they have with a free hand and access to wherever they want to go, that is not going to work," he says.
Something like a joint security council, made up of coalition and Iraqi officers, must be devised to give Iraqi authorities some say in security matters, Mr. Kubba says. A conference could add legitimacy to such an arrangement - but it would have to be carefully planned, Kubba says.
His recommendations: It should be based on provincial leaders and geographical divisions, not religious and ethnic breakdowns. It should also close the door to the political parties and other power groups that have already grabbed privilege and financial advantage. "If you can get the hands of these groups off the process, there's a chance for a fresh start" under the caretaker government, Kubba says. "If not, the alternative is bleak."