BAGHDAD, Iraq—Earlier this month, a letter from Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric arrived at the offices of Iraq's new prime minister, advising him that as he takes charge of the country he should remember the Islamic concept of amana—guarding other people's precious property with one's life.
It was Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani's tacit endorsement of the interim leadership of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his fledgling Cabinet, and it was greeted with relief. Three other times during the American occupation Sistani's objections short-circuited American plans for governing Iraq.
But the letter also was a reminder that Iraq belongs to many. While officially Allawi and his government of opposition leaders and technocrats will be in charge come Thursday, much of the real power will lie outside the interim government.
The most powerful player remains the U.S.-led coalition, renamed the Multinational Forces, whose role is still being determined. Muslim clerics, deadly insurgents and U.S.-backed Kurdish political parties all will play a role in determining Iraq's future.
To fulfill his Islamic responsibility under amana, as well as his secular duty as the latest ruler of a diverse and war-weary nation, Allawi must delicately deal with all the players. If he does so skillfully, Iraq may yet evolve into something of a democratic model in the Middle East. If he fails, Iraq could spin into civil war, breed more terrorism and instability and endanger President Bush's chances for a second term.
"Iyad Allawi and his group want Iraqi independence and they want to succeed in this political process by working with the Americans," said Ayad Samarrai, the deputy secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, an influential Sunni Muslim group. "The other groups want the same thing, but they don't trust the Americans and won't work with them. But the goal for independence is the same."
Serving so many masters could leave Allawi's new government hamstrung. Each faction brings a different vision of what sovereign Iraq should look like, and so far none of them squares with the Bush administration's plans for a secular, American-friendly model of Middle Eastern democracy.
These are the factions Allawi must deal with as he takes the helm:
Iraq's Shiite majority was badly fractured during an uprising that pitted Sistani against rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr. With that fighting now largely over, the Shiites are trying to bring together rival groups, build a voting bloc and sweep elections late next year. Many Shiite parties have demanded an Islamic-based constitution and other measures that hint of a theocracy in the vein of neighboring Iran.
Sistani, elderly and reclusive, is still considered the most influential cleric, and many consider his religious edicts law. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the dominant Shiite political party, enjoys Sistani's support and has key positions in Allawi's government.
But al Sadr's radical stance against the American occupiers enchanted many young Shiites and it remains to be seen whether moderate Shiites loyal to Sistani can woo them back. A recent poll put al Sadr in second place, after Sistani, as the most respected man in Iraq.
Building a partnership with the man widely believed to be in favor of removing the moderate clergy by any means necessary is a risky prospect for the Shiites in the new government.
Sadr still isn't completely trusted, though the relationship is "better than before," said Homam Hamodi, a leading figure in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution.
Al Sadr, meanwhile, is using his new status as folk hero for political leverage. The man who a month ago battled U.S. troops with his ragtag Mahdi Army militia has been invited to send a delegate to the national convention, which will elect a national assembly in coming months.
What Allawi will do about a murder charge still pending against al Sadr in connection with the death of a rival cleric last year is unknown, as is al Sadr's own feelings about taking part in the government.
"The shift from fighter to politician is a difficult one and it takes time," Hamodi said with a wry smile.
Iraqi politicians privy to the talks that resulted in the new government said the country's powerful Kurdish parties, the most consistently pro-American groups in Iraq, wanted either the presidency or the prime minister post. They got neither.
Kurds, brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, fought alongside U.S. troops during the war and seek recognition for the sacrifices of their peshmerga militias.
Arab politicians balked and the slots went to Allawi, a Shiite Arab, and Ghazi al Yawer, a Sunni Arab tribesman whose flowing robes and traditional headdress sharply contrast with his colleagues' Western business suits.
As a sort of consolation prize, Iraqi officials said, a Kurd was named vice president, another is a deputy prime minister and Kurdish technocrats now head several key ministries, including foreign affairs, human rights, public works and water resources.
While the new government publicly talks of a unified, diverse Iraq, simmering ethnic tension threatens to derail Allawi's plans inside and outside the government. Kurdish ministers threatened to resign or withdraw their support of the new government after a United Nations Security Council resolution didn't include protections they won under interim Iraqi laws.
Vice President Rowsch Shaways, a German-educated engineer and former prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, is expected to quell ethnic tension as well as ensure that Kurdish rights are protected in the next phase of government.
Outside officialdom, a struggle remains over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, which many Kurds said should be incorporated into their semi-autonomous northern region. Rival Arab and Turkmen groups have resisted, though thousands of Kurds are camped out in the city to sway the demographics in their favor.
"The Kurds run their own region, so their influence across Iraq won't be so great," said a senior Arab member of the new government, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Kurdish colleagues. "But the Americans must stay in Kirkuk and prevent a violent takeover by the Kurds. The allies should never withdraw—the situation is too explosive."
_The insurgents and terrorists
The key measure of Allawi's success will be in how he handles the deteriorating security conditions in Iraq.
Already, Allawi is winning a reputation as a no-nonsense heavyweight. He's announced plans to streamline the country's nascent security forces into a terrorism-fighting system and hasn't ruled out martial law to regain control of the country in the first weeks of sovereignty.
"The new government is like a sieve. It'll filter out the people who are all talk and no action," said Amal Kashif al Getaa of the Islamic Union of Women and Children. "Iyad Allawi is strong and tough with a hard edge. He'll make things better. The new government is a step forward, but the religious leaders and the tribes still run things."
Enemy No. 1 is Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist who claims responsibility for most of Iraq's large-scale bombings, attacks on U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders and the gruesome slayings of foreign hostages. On Wednesday, al Zarqawi turned his attention to Allawi, calling for the prime minister's head in a taped death threat broadcast throughout the Arab world on satellite television.
Zarqawi, supported by disenchanted Sunnis in the flashpoint city of Fallujah, Iraq, and vehemently anti-American Sunni militant groups elsewhere in the country, vowed his attacks wouldn't stop until "Islamic rule is back on earth."
_President Bush and the United States
Tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq long after June 30 and probably even after elections scheduled for the end of 2005.
To establish his credibility, Allawi will have to separate himself somehow from the Americans and that will almost certainly mean confronting them at some point on some issue—most likely the conduct of military operations in the country.
Allawi reportedly was furious that he was given only a few hours' warning before the coalition launched an airstrike on a suspected terrorist safe house in Fallujah, killing at least 19 Iraqis last weekend.
Publicly, Allawi said he welcomed hits on terrorist targets. Privately, he reportedly is angling for more control over major U.S. military operations.
How willing the Americans will be to give him greater could well hinge on a factor clearly outside of Allawi's control, the American political process.
The political stakes for Bush are huge as the November elections near. Polls indicate that events in Iraq are the single biggest factor in shaping voter attitudes. When things are going well, voters are more likely to approve of Bush's performance and express more confidence about the direction of the country. When things go badly, Bush suffers in the polls.
"Iraq as an issue is entirely about what happens between now and Election Day," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Most Iraqis in the new government defend a prolonged American presence as a necessary evil until Iraqi security forces are up to the job. But it's clear that it grates.
Juwad al Maliki, a member of the Shiite Dawa political party, recently called himself an optimist about the handover. "I'm willing to pay the price for those who suffered under the brutalities of the old regime and for those who suffered under the occupation," he said.
But it comes with a personal cost. Al Maliki later walked in the broiling sun to a checkpoint outside an office he uses in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the coalition keeps its headquarters. American and Nepalese private security forces turned him away, apparently because they didn't recognize him.
"They'll never understand us. They'll just never understand," al Maliki muttered, humiliated and sweating, as he set off down an empty road, in search of another entrance.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HANDOVER
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ-HANDOVER