The announcement this month that the U.S. would transfer sovereign authority to Iraqis much sooner than expected has prompted a new political dialogue in Iraq.
Although the debate itself may signal that Iraq's post- dictatorship political life has finally begun, it focuses attention on all the obstacles that lie ahead on the road to self-government.
In his Baghdad living room last week, Abdel Adil Mehdi, a prominent Shiite Muslim politician, broke the daily Ramadan fast with guests just a few days after the announcement of the U.S. plan. Selecting two Iraqi dates from the plate of sweets on his coffee table, he launched into a vigorous defense of the agreement.
Mehdi, who as a representative of Iraqi Governing Council member Abdelaziz Hakim agreed to the terms of the hand-over, faced a skeptical audience, even though they were close friends. Opinion leaders and intellectuals, his guests wondered whether the paper agreement could translate into authentic power. Would security, for instance, really be in Iraqi hands?
Hundreds of miles to the south, the governor of Najaf province, Haydar Mayali, examined three books on democracy given to him by a U.S. official as he answered questions about the agreement.
Then Mayali put the books -- one with a cover drawing of the Statue of Liberty -- aside and asked bluntly: How could there be real sovereignty if "there is no fixed time for the American troops to withdraw?"
In the same building, Mahdil Hasnawi, who runs a local bus service, had an even more basic question: How would Iraqis even know they had sovereignty? "Will it put anything substantial in our hands?"
As such doubts are being expressed about the power transfer itself, some political leaders are engaging in more nuanced debates about how the agreement will be implemented.
By the end of February, according to the transfer agreement, the Governing Council is to write an interim "basic law" that will govern Iraq at least until it adopts a new constitution and holds national elections, a process widely expected to take until 2006.
Still unclear in the minds of some council members is whether they will decide such potentially divisive questions as whether Iraq will be an Islamic state or have Islam as its state religion, how much autonomy will be accorded to the Kurdish areas in the north, and whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk will be included within the Kurdish boundaries.
These debates suggest how difficult it is to institute democracy on a fast track.
"People haven't thought these things through at all," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan, and an expert on the Iraqi constitutional process.
"You're dealing with people with no experience with the details of governing," Hiltermann said.
Assuming that the Governing Council succeeds in agreeing on the interim law by the end of February, the second step in the power transfer would be the appointment of provincial caucuses that would elect from their own ranks delegates to a National Assembly.
Then the Governing Council will negotiate agreements with the U.S. military to define which troops will remain in Iraq, including their numbers and areas of operation -- a momentous decision.
The final step before the transfer of authority will be the formation of the National Assembly, which in turn will choose a government, including an executive body, to run the country. At that point, the current Governing Council will dissolve and the ministers now in charge will resign.
These steps sounded straightforward enough when they were first presented, but on closer inspection there are many unanswered questions.
For instance, the agreement says that the basic law will include "a federal arrangement for Iraq, to include governorates and the separation and specification of powers to be exercised by central and local entities."
But what exactly is a "federal arrangement"? And once one is set, will it be possible to change it when a permanent constitution is drafted?
Most Arab Iraqis believe that the way the country is divided administratively will be critical to its political and economic future and should be decided by an elected constitutional convention.
But Kurdish Iraqis, who have the most at stake, want to deal with the matter now in the basic law.
They are eager to ratify the status quo, in which the Kurdish minority controls the quasi-independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Such an arrangement would be hard to undo when the permanent constitution is written.
Jalal Talabani, the current president of the Governing Council and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two major Kurdish political groups, even told the news media that the transfer agreement contained the provision that Kurdistan's special status would be recognized.
However, there is no such clause in the agreement.
Another member of the Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, sharply disagreed with the idea that anything about Iraq's federal character would be decided in the basic law.
"If we dealt with that, we would never finish in three months," he said briskly.
The most fraught element of the agreement is the grass-roots-level selection of delegates to the National Assembly. According to some Iraqi experts as well as officials with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the organizing committee responsible for creating the caucuses that would select the delegates may be seen as tainted because some committee members are drawn from provincial and local councils.
"There are some questions about these provincial councils," Pachachi said. "They were either appointed by the CPA or the CPA called, say, a group of 100 people at random from leaders of the community and maybe there were some Baathists among them or corrupt people. Or in some cases, they were appointed by the local governor, and the local governor was questionable."
But to remove all such "taints" might entail dissolving existing councils and reconstituting them -- an enormous task, Pachachi said.
Coalition officials agreed that the caucus selection process will be critical. "We've got to get this right because it's the absolute key to ensuring that the legislature is seen as legitimate by Iraqis," a senior CPA official said. "If it's not seen as legitimate, we've got a big problem because it opens the doors to the Baathists to come back."
Coalition officials fear that former regime figures will try to ensure that result by selectively assassinating caucus or organizing committee members, or even attacking their meetings.
Jabber Habib and Hussein Sumaidy, political scientists at Baghdad University, gathered to mull the new plan a couple of days after it was announced. Overall, they were optimistic, although they said it was a long way from true democracy.
"Iraqis have not practiced democracy, ever.... But at least this will engage people in the political process so that they are busy with something instead of criticizing the situation and being busy with the resistance," Habib said as his colleague nodded. But at the grass roots and even among educated people, doubts about what democracy yields are rife. Many say Iraqis can only be ruled by a strongman.
Mehdi, the representative of the Governing Council's Hakim, leaned forward and spoke softly to a visitor in his living room as if he was reluctant to confront his skeptical guests with the harsh realities he has faced.
"No Third World country is really independent in the proper sense, certainly not economically. It used to be some were Francophone, some were part of the British Commonwealth. In the Soviet Union's time, many were in its orbit. Now we have to ask, without America, what bloc would Iraq rely on?
"This is not only about our wishes. We wish to be independent, but we know economic reality and we know political reality -- Iraq now is a ruined country."
The only answer is to advance little by little, he said, raising his voice and addressing his friends again. "People are saying the Americans will still be in Iraq, but that is another issue," he said. "We will have sovereignty. We will have what the Palestinians are fighting for."