Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council says it has agreed that nationwide elections would be the best way to choose a transitional government by the end of next June.
Political observers here say the Governing Council's announcement on Sunday appears to be an effort to show the country's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that council members are taking his objections seriously.
Last Wednesday, the ayatollah publicly stated that he was unhappy about an agreement the Governing Council signed on November 15 with the U.S.-led administration here. Among other things, the ayatollah objected to using indirect, caucus-style elections to choose members of an interim government, as outlined in the plan. He says elections that important need the participation of all Iraqis, in order to be legitimate.
U.S. officials have argued that holding elections would be time-consuming and complicated in the absence of an electoral law and an accurate census. The American plan calls for a transitional government to be installed by the end of June, and general elections to be held in two years time.
In response to Shiite complaints, the holder of the Governing Council's rotating presidency last month, Jalal Talabani, traveled to the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, to discuss a compromise.
Governing Council member and an intermediary for the Shiite cleric, Abdul Aziz Hakim, says, since the meeting, the Governing Council has been working hard to address what Mr. Hakim calls real loopholes in the plan to transfer sovereignty.
Mr. Hakim says he is now optimistic that a new plan can be formulated to serve the interests of all Iraqi people.
Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, and high-ranking Shiite clerics have been eager to use national elections as a way to enfranchise a majority of the community that has long been repressed in Iraq.
Because of the ayatollah's overwhelming influence in the Shiite community, many observers say any political process put forth by the coalition and the Governing Council will need his approval for it to succeed.
But while the Governing Council has yielded to the ayatollah by formally recognizing the desirability of holding nationwide elections, some council members acknowledge there may not be enough time to organize them in the coming months.
On Sunday, the council said it agreed to set up a committee to assess how best to transfer power to the Iraqi people.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Dan Senor, says the plan the Governing Council agreed to earlier this month would stand.
"We are now working on the issues related to the implementation of the process," said Mr. Senor. "We intend to honor the agreement we signed."
A delay or unraveling of the agreement would be a major setback to the U.S.-led administration. The United States wants a speedy transfer of power, to quell a growing and increasingly violent anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq.