Bush administration officials are hoping that leaders in Iraq will draft a constitution within six months and then hold nationwide elections. The U.S.-led coalition would control Iraq until a new government is elected. But leaders from other countries are calling for a faster handover of power. Some Middle East analysts say these timetables are risky, and that moving too fast could jeopardize the future of Iraq and the transition to a stable democracy. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is urging the Bush administration to promptly hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government.
But President Bush says such a transfer of power cannot be done quickly.
"The transition to self-government is a complicated process, because it takes time to build trust and hope, after decades of oppression and fear," he said. "Yet we are making steady progress, and we will keep our promise to fully return Iraq's government to Iraq's people, as soon as possible."
Kenneth Pollack, a former Middle East specialist at the National Security Council who currently is a senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, says it is too early to predict the long-term future of Iraq.
Mr. Pollack says Iraq can still become a shining dream of democracy in the Middle East, or it could collapse into chaos and become a nightmare of guerrilla or even civil warfare.
He says he expects something in between.
"If we continue to pump tens-of-billions of dollars into the Iraqi economy every year, and we are willing to keep a 100,000 or more troops in Iraq, I think we can prevent it from sliding into civil war and keep a nascent economy going," said Mr. Pollack. "But it is going to be a polity that is mostly on life support, propped up by us."
What is more certain, Mr. Pollack says, is the impact the reconstruction of Iraq will have on other countries in the Middle East.
"Whether we like it or not, for good or bad, and probably both, what happens in Iraq, the success or failure of our efforts in Iraq, I think will have a tremendous impact on our larger efforts toward the region and on the future of the region itself," he explained.
Amy Hawthorne, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where she focuses on efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East says it is not yet clear whether the Bush administration or the American people are prepared for the amount of time it will take for the Iraqi people to decide how to govern themselves.
"In Iraq, I believe, we are at the very beginning of what is going to be a very messy and complicated process of shaping that country's new system of governance," said Ms. Hawthorne. "We have not even gotten to the point, or the Iraqis have not gotten to the point, of figuring out how they will draft their constitution," she continued. "The next two years we are going to witness these arguments and debates taking place within Iraq and so we are just at the very, very beginning of a long and what I think will be a messy process."
Secretary of State Colin Powell has predicted it will take about six months for Iraqis to draft a constitution.
Other countries, notably France and Russia, urge that a handover of sovereignty should come much more quickly.
Ms. Hawthorne says the Americans as well as the French and Russians are asking the Iraqis to do too much too soon.
"What the United States needs to be focusing on is not rushing to create a constitution, but thinking analytically and strategically about how to create the conditions under which either an effective top down or bottom up process can occur and that will take a lot longer than six months," she said. "We will probably rush it because there is also the timing of the U.S. presidential election that is driving a lot of this. And we will end up with something that will crumble very, very shortly and then we will have the same problem on our hands just a few years later."
Middle East analyst Kenneth Pollack agrees, saying a quick handover could hurt prospects for a democratic Iraq.
"I am very, very wary of all of these go fast schemes," he commented. "I think the French position is outrageous. But I will say that I think even some of the positions being advocated by some Americans, that we might do this in six months, or 12 months or 18 months that strikes me as too fast. ... moving too fast to this sort of national level government basically just empowers the old elites and does not help the process of democracy. It undercuts it."
A U.S. draft resolution on Iraq currently being discussed at the United Nations endorses a gradual transfer of power to civilian rule, but does not set a timetable for the handover of sovereignty.
The Bush administration says the coalition authority will not transfer power in Iraq until the country has a constitution and a new government is elected.