With a new Iraqi government almost formed after two months of negotiations between Shiite and Kurdish political leaders, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Iraq for a day of meetings in which he warned against further delay.
"We have an opportunity to continue to make progress ... [but] anything that would delay that or disrupt that as a result of turbulence, or lack of confidence or corruption in government, would be unfortunate," he said.
But more turbulence may be difficult to avoid. Though any agreement is a major achievement, the country's leaders and its divided communities are now moving to a higher-stakes game over the same core issues that delayed an accord on the government for so long.
While the current agreement could be the beginning of national reconciliation, the negotiations left an atmosphere of distrust that could overshadow efforts to write a constitution and create a plural system of government.
"There is not going to be a draft of the new constitution by mid-August,'' says Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan. "Most of the agreements in the negotiations on the government between Shiites and Kurds have been hard won, when they should have been easy and done quickly. The idea that they could write a constitution, a complex and lasting document, in just a little more time seems fanciful."
A closer look at the two months of negotiations - that appointed Shiite Islamist Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister and promised to divvy up cabinet posts along religious and ethnic lines - may provide a blueprint for how Iraq will struggle to forge a political identity in the coming years. The difficult talks, complete with angry accusations, stormy meetings, and apparent breakdowns saved at the last minute by tough compromises, illustrate both the best hopes for a new culture of compromise and the risks that the country could split further along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The key players in the negotiations were Shiites and Kurds, the most united and focused of Iraq's interest groups. The Sunni Arabs who ruled Iraq for most of its history and are fueling the insurgency were left as interested, but mostly disengaged, bystanders.
Mr. Cole says that while a Sunni Arab was chosen as house speaker and four cabinet positions were reserved for Sunnis, that will not undercut the fighters.
Though the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - the list of mostly religious Shiites that won 51 percent of the parliament seats - was in the strongest position, interim rules required a two-thirds majority for a new government. That required a temporary alliance with the Kurds, who won 27 percent of the seats.
But the two sides remain far apart on how to run the state. The Shiite parties would like to see a strong role for Islamic law, or sharia, while the Kurds want a more secular model. Top Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, want a strong central government, while the Kurds want a federal model with substantial powers reserved for an autonomous Kurdistan.
In the end, an agreement was made with promises on dividing the ministries among the Kurds and Shiites. But this too, has its problems. Secretary Rumsfeld Tuesday warned that "it's important that the new government be attentive to the competence of the people in the ministries and that they avoid unnecessary turbulence." Most in Iraq expect a reshuffling of those positions by the parties that control them to reward loyalists.
Few expected forming a government to take as long as it did. As talks dragged into March, concerns over popular anger forced progress toward an agreement. But even as they neared a solution, Shiites were complaining of Kurd demands to expand their autonomous zone to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
During a mid-March interview, a senior KDP official, Abdul Jalil Faili, complained of a Shiite media campaign against the Kurds, brandishing a paper published by supporters of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A headline compared Kurdish demands about Kirkuk to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Mr. Faili also charged that Shiites were heavily influenced by Iran.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the two main parties in the UIA, had a different take. A SCIRI negotiator said the Kurds were consistently unreasonable in demanding Kirkuk, the maintenance of their peshmerga militia, and, he said, guarantees that they would be given 25 percent of central-government revenue.
While it's unlikely that a constitution will be agreed to by August, the demands of an electorate that now expects results may prod both sides to compromise.
"Many of the main Shiite leaders feel that the Kurds are making maximalist demands at a time when it's not helpful to Iraq - that's what they're angry about,'' says Cole. "And the Kurds are afraid that this is the only chance they'll get to negotiate a deal they can live with for decades. But it should be remembered that both sides have a gun to their head - that is, the danger of popular discontent" if matters drag on too long.