Since the U.S.-led coalition took control of this country, one of its biggest enemies has been time. The agreement reached Saturday to hasten the hand-over of sovereignty to Iraqis, if it works, has the advantage of speed. But whether democratic efforts will prevail remains in doubt.
The new approach holds huge risks for the coalition because democracy has shallow roots in Iraq and there will be numerous obstacles at each step of the process, not least of all the destabilizing violence that now seems to be touching nearly every corner of the country.
If it fails, the Bush administration's experiment of exporting democracy to the Middle East could look like a benighted policy on the eve of the 2004 presidential election and could leave the Iraqi people demoralized.
But if Iraqis, who have been clamoring for an end to the occupation, embrace the moment and take charge of their future, the plan could be the advent of a new era and a new paradigm for transforming despotic governments into democratic ones.
For the Bush administration, there were few other choices to get the stalled reconstruction effort going, especially in light of the deteriorating security situation. The administration has been faced with the growing skepticism of Iraqis over the coalition's intentions. At the very least, the developments Saturday looked likely to give Iraqis faith that the U.S. presence has a real end date.
Several members of the Iraqi Governing Council said they also believed that the imminent prospect of an Iraqi state would give ordinary citizens a sense of ownership and a stake in the future -- and that, in turn, would give them the wherewithal to stand up to the anti-American guerrillas.
"I hope that these steps will improve the security situation," said Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Governing Council. "I hope it will persuade people we are on the right track, and I think the majority will see it that way because I don't see any alternative."
A senior Bush administration official said that one goal of the agreement was to increase Iraqis' sense of empowerment.
"The more participation in the government that we can get at the grass-roots level, the more legitimacy it will be perceived as having in the short term and the long term," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the critical factor in the administration's change in course perhaps had more to do with timing than with concerns about democratic participation.
With Saddam Hussein's ouster, the coalition faced unrealistic expectations about how quickly Iraqis' daily life would be changed with the dictator's departure. When instead many aspects of their lives worsened or became more chaotic, people felt cheated and angry, and some regions quickly became fertile ground for the armed insurgency.
Since August, when the attacks dramatically increased and the suicide car bombings began, the administration has been desperately searching for a way to stem its losses both in troops killed and in public credibility.
The urgency of reversing course became clear about 10 days ago when the Governing Council went to civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III and told him there was no way to write a constitution without first holding a direct election for the drafters -- a demand particularly pushed by Shiite religious leaders. Bremer had wanted an appointed constitutional assembly to draft the document.
The demand for the election focused everyone on the reality that writing the constitution before forming a government "was not in line with the desire to get authority back to the Iraqis ... as quickly as possible," the administration official said.
The new plan has many vulnerabilities, not least of all its system for creating a legislature -- which relies on the appointment of committees in each province, which in turn will appoint a large caucus for the province, which then will choose the lawmakers.
The risk with such a multitiered process is that there would be many opportunities for Hussein loyalists to intimidate caucus members or even assassinate them to frighten people away from participating.
There is also the possibility that mosques and tribes, both of which have considerable influence at the local level, will be unable to agree on the representatives to send to a new National Assembly.
The administration official said that Washington did not develop the blueprint for the series of town council meetings and caucuses called for in the plan, adding, "This is going to be now the hard work ... for the Governing Council."
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.