The most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq said Sunday that members of an interim assembly must be chosen through direct elections, putting at risk White House plans to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis by July 1. His statement came despite continuing efforts to change the cleric's mind on the subject.
The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued an edict in late June that urged Iraqis to press for general elections and that forced American officials to scrap their original plans for writing a constitution.
He added that an interim constitution being drafted by the Iraqi Governing Council and any agreement for American-led forces to remain in the country must be approved only by directly elected representatives.
If Sistani remains adamant about direct elections, this would be a serious hurdle to democracy in Iraq and to the Bush administration's transition timeline. Direct elections would be nearly impossible to run fairly - there's no census, there are no political parties and there's no guarantee of fairness in the election, among many other problems.
Direct elections would almost certainly result in the Shiite majority taking power to the detriment of the ousted Sunnis and the Kurds, who want to maintain their own independence.
This all sets up an increased risk of civil war in Iraq and a war between the Kurds and the Turks, the latter who will not tolerate any semblance of an independent Kurdish region.
If these issues are not resolved peacefully, Iraq could quickly become a worse mess than it already is.