The question of how much sovereignty for Iraq is dominating the final deliberations over the handover of authority from the US - from Baghdad and the sun-baked mosques of Kufa and Najaf to the halls of the UN in New York.
The sovereignty question factors in the surprise naming by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council of one of its own members, Iyad Allawi - a longtime exile with close ties to the CIA - as prime minister of the interim government that will take over Iraq's affairs June 30.
It's an underlying presence in the deal the fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr made last week with moderate Shiite leaders calling off his militia's uprising against US forces. The rebellious leader, wanted in connection with the murder of another cleric last year, pointedly said he would not submit to any authorities that did not issue from a sovereign government.
And establishing genuine sovereignty for Iraq is becoming the focus of Security Council countries that do not want to approve another UN resolution that in effect leaves Iraq's affairs - especially in the security realm - in American hands.
Sovereignty is taking on such importance because of deepening concern over whether the Iraqi people will embrace the interim government as legitimate in the crucial months before elections planned to be held by January 2005. "There are going to be problems with any government, especially where the security situation won't allow an electoral process to deliver it," says James Dobbins, a former White House envoy to Afghanistan and Bosnia. "But what is needed is a government that as many people buy into as possible."
The interim government that began to emerge over the weekend is a reflection of a tougher tug of war than anticipated between the US-named Governing Council and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, entrusted by the White House with coming up with a caretaker government. Charged with forging a leadership made up of a prime minister, a largely ceremonial president and two vice presidents, as well as 26 ministers, Mr. Brahimi sought to deliver something more representative to average Iraqis than the Governing council, which has never enjoyed much public support.
But the council, made up largely of former exiles representing established political parties, balked at Brahimi's first choice for prime minister, nuclear scientist Hussain Sharistrani, a Shiite and senior adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. After imposing one of their own, Mr. Allawi, in that post on Friday, council members also stonewalled candidates that were known to be the preference of Brahimi and the US for other top jobs.
But at the same time Brahimi was believed to have secured three of the six most coveted ministerial positions for two Kurd leaders and one Sunni - the other six going to representatives of the majority Shiites. While some of the top picks of the new government still being drawn up Monday were not Brahimi's first choices, the overall makeup is reflective of the careful balance among Iraq's predominant religious and ethnic populations that the UN envoy sought from the beginning. "Brahimi really has been very clever. He knows that if there is no buy-in from the main communities, the government won't have legitimacy and it can't be successful," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi expert at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.
From the beginning, the Governing Council was uneasy with what Brahimi said was his preference for a caretaker government of technocrats who would swear off any role in elections. People close to Brahimi say his talk of technocrats was never a hard and fast rule, but rather a way to discuss the new government's formation. "Brahimi doesn't go in with a vision, he goes in with an open mind and a plan for moving consultations in a desirable direction," says Mr. Dobbins, who worked with Brahimi in Afghanistan.
Now an international security expert at the RAND Corp., Dobbins says any government Brahimi accepts will be one he believes can move Iraq ahead.
But others say the interim leadership is still going to face heavy suspicion that it, like the council, was handpicked by the US. That is especially true given Allawi's close ties to the CIA. "This is a disaster," says Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi political scientist now at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. Noting that Allawi is an ex-Baathist, Mr. Jabar adds, "He is neither a technocrat nor someone who will stand aside as we move towards elections."
The risk is that even if the new government succeeds at the intricate task of balancing Iraq's key ethnic and religious groups, Iraqis may still see it as a government named by outsiders. "Handpicked governments selected from outside tend to have limited support," says Gayle Smith, a former National Security Council expert. Pointing to the Governing Council's experience, she says the caretaker leaders will have to make clear that it's "provisional," charged mainly with organizing elections.
At the same time, the caretaker government is seen by the world community as a crucial step in reestablishing Iraq's sovereignty. Members of the Security Council are insisting on strengthening a draft resolution submitted by the US and Britain last week to ensure that even a caretaker government will have charge of the country's affairs - especially in security matters.
China, for example, wants the operations of foreign troops to be subject to Iraqi review, except in the case of self-defense. President Bush speaks of "full sovereignty" for after the handover, but opposes any limits on US command of its own forces.
Such prickly issues will be debated when the new Iraqi leaders make their views known. Any who are perceived as too close to the US might raise international suspicions. But foreign diplomats say it is unlikely the Security Council would brush off representatives of a government that has received UN envoy Brahimi's blessing.