A U.S.-backed plan to quickly give Iraqis sovereignty over their country again appeared to be unraveling Thursday as a leading politician backed complaints by Shiite Muslim authorities that the process was not democratic enough.
Jalal Talabani, current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, emerged from a meeting with the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, saying that he agreed with Sistani's criticism and that he expected an appendix to be added to the plan.
"I see the views of his grace as logical and reasonable, and I agree with them," said Talabani, a Sunni Muslim and the leader of one of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties.
Sistani's grievances are a serious setback for the Americans. Renegotiating the deal could delay the hand-over of power, jeopardizing efforts to diminish the U.S. presence in Iraq and undercutting the White House's insistence that it is in control of the situation.
Plans for a massive U.S.-financed media campaign in Iraq to promote the agreement have been put on hold, officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority said.
Coalition officials and the Iraqis insist that they do not want a confrontation, but the situation puts two of the most powerful people in Iraq at odds: Sistani and L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator of the country.
At issue is the agreement signed Nov. 15 by Bremer and the U.S.-backed Governing Council. It provides for the creation of an interim legislature, relying on caucus-style elections in each of the country's 18 provinces. The council would dissolve under the plan, the interim government would serve until a constitution was approved and a permanent government elected.
The White House, aware that it risks losing its battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis, and facing daily U.S. casualties as it approaches an election year, is eager to reduce U.S. visibility on the ground. However, it wants to ensure that a friendly government emerges in Iraq.
President Bush met briefly with members of the Governing Council on Thursday during a surprise visit with U.S. troops in Baghdad. Afterward, Bush told reporters that the building of a new Iraqi government "is going to require debate and discussion, and that's healthy.... We've got to be realistic and patient about how they proceed."
Shiites, who make up more than 60% of Iraq's population, were brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They are anxious to ensure that a democracy translates into political power for them.
The most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, Sistani is beloved by many in the faith, who paste his photograph on their cars and donkey carts, shop windows and city walls. His backing is viewed by politicians of all stripes as necessary for any political plan to win broad support.
Bremer is someone who does not change course lightly. He already made a major concession to Sistani by agreeing to put off the drafting of a permanent constitution until its writers could be elected.
Told that concession was insufficient, Bremer is enormously frustrated with the Governing Council, according to one member. The Iraqi official said Bremer accused council members of "crossing a red line" by reversing course on the plan.
Talabani's agreement with Sistani amounted to a complete turnabout in 24 hours. Earlier, he had supported keeping the plan in its current form.
According to a Shiite leader who spoke with Sistani recently, he is upset that the 15-member organizing committee that is key to choosing each province's legislative representatives may be tainted.
The organizing committee is to be made up of five people appointed by the Governing Council, five appointed by a provincial caucus and five by the city councils of the largest cities.
In many areas, members of the provincial and city councils were picked by U.S. military commanders when they first occupied Iraq. They may include people who have little clout in the community, were members of Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party or who have a reputation for corruption.
"There are many reservations about those provincial governments and local councils, as they are not democratically elected," Talabani said.
Sistani also wants some elements of direct election in selecting the interim legislature, arguing that despite the lack of a reliable census, elections can be held on the basis of food ration cards distributed to Iraqis under the old regime.
He has endorsed keeping the Governing Council in place after the interim government is elected, an approach strongly supported by many council members.
Sistani's objections took many by surprise because the Nov. 15 agreement had already met his demands for a quick hand-over of power and for direct elections for drafters of a constitution.
However, it seemed Thursday that there was no certainty about what kind of agreement the Governing Council wants.
"For us it is an evolving process," said Mouwafak Rabii, a Shiite member of the council. "It is not written in stone, we modify it as we go, according to the interests of the Iraqi people."
That is unacceptable to coalition officials.
"We're not sure what game they think they are playing," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But it is striking that the group that is pushing hardest for democracy wants the system to be fixed to ensure that they have a majority."
From the White House point of view, direct elections held now could easily result in a "mosque" election in which clerics tell their followers how to vote. That would probably be rejected by a number of non-Shiite Iraqis and leave Washington without the democratic success in Iraq that it wants.
It also would run the risk of installing a government that leans more toward an Iranian-style theocracy.