Until recently, the struggle over Iraq's election date has divided along sectarian lines. Sunnis, whose religious authorities have largely disdained the elections, want a delay. Shiites, whose powerful religious leaders pushed hard for the poll, won't budge from the scheduled date of Jan. 30.
The stalemate is exacerbating tensions between Iraq's Sunni minority and its majority Shiites, keen to take power after years of rule by a Sunni elite.
It's also put President Bush in a tricky position. Any delay would mean US troops stay longer. So far, Mr. Bush has insisted that elections go forward on time, despite a growing groundswell for a delay from Sunni moderates, who fear that violence will keep Sunnis from participating in the ballot.
But a moderate Shiite cleric has been quietly floating a proposal that could break this dead- lock. Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a cleric from the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, is trying to gather support for a delay that would last no longer than April. If the delay is accompanied by a strict timeline and guarantees of no further postponements, Mr. Ghitta believes it would help increase voter participation.
"The delay would be effective if it is part of a program to end terrorism in Iraq," says Ghitta in a phone interview from Baghdad. "It would give us a reasonable period of time so that people will feel safe to go out and vote. At the same time, there would be another month or two to organize the elections."
The debate comes at a crucial moment for Sunni-Shiite relations. Iraq's preeminent religious leader, Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has managed to pull together a unified slate of mostly Shiite candidates that looks poised to sweep the Jan. 30 ballot.
On Thursday, Sistani's representatives announced that the Shiite slate would include members of the three main Shiite exile parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Iraqi National Congress. The list includes some Sunnis and Kurds as well, but no major Sunni political movements.
"The Bush administration has been insisting on elections Jan. 30, and I don't see any signs of flexibility there," says Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at University of Michigan. "There is no reason to think that the [security] situation will be better in April than it is in January. And I think this is the subtext of the Bush administration's reluctance to change the date. One cleric in Najaf who's not a grand Ayatollah is not going to be able to make the situation different."
Ghitta's plan could help alleviate those fears. His proposal is simple: Delay the elections until the end of April, giving the interim government, election commission, and Sunni politicians more time to build greater voter participation. But if elections still aren't possible by the end of April, Iraq's current interim government must agree to step down.
The plan is significant because it is the first such proposal to come from a member of the Shiite clergy, not from Sunnis or from secular Shiites like Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
If Allawi proposed a delay, it might be seen as a self-serving attempt to keep his office long enough to consolidate power. But Ghitta's proposal, coming from a respected Shiite cleric, might fare better.
Ghitta is hoping to enlist the United Nations to enforce this ultimatum. If he can persuade the United Nations and other international authorities to guarantee a strict timeline, he is willing to take the idea to Sistani.
"Sistani wants to be assured that the election will eventually be held," said Mr. Ghitta, a religious scholar from a long line of Shiite clerics. "The Shiite marja'iya will not agree to a delay in the elections without a guarantee. But if we go to the marja'iya with this idea, with a written schedule, the marja'iya will look at it seriously."
Sistani has so far refused to compromise on the election date, which he hammered out in a series of painful, long-distance negotiations - he rarely leaves his house - with US occupation authorities last year. On Nov. 26, a group of mostly Sunni political parties, headed by politician Adnan Pachachi, asked for a delay of six months. The answer from Sistani's office was swift: no delay.
But as the Dec. 15 deadline for voter registration draws near, Iraqi authorities have begun to acknowledge that the election will be difficult to pull off as planned. On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi hinted at a possible compromise: elections staggered over a series of two or three weeks, instead of one day, giving election authorities time to adjust to often violent conditions in different parts of the country. Allawi backed away from the idea on Thursday, but Iraq's independent electoral commission, said it would be willing to consider it.
So far, Ghitta has approached a senior United Nations representative and Mr. Pachachi. United Nations officials could not be reached for comment, but a representative of Pachachi's Independent Democratic Movement said they were taking the idea seriously.
But the most important response will be Sistani's. Ghitta has not yet taken his proposal to the senior cleric. An aide in Sistani's Najaf office called Ghitta "a very respected scholar," but said he had not heard of the proposal.
"Ayatollah Sistani's position is clear: he does not want a delay in the election," said the aide, who asked not to be named. "The Iraqi people have already been waiting for a long time."
But Ghitta believes that Iraqis need more time for voter education. "The people of Iraq have not been instilled with the culture of elections."