THE BUSH administration faces an extraordinarily difficult dilemma over a future Iraqi government. Straightforward elections would certainly be won by well-organized religious groups among the country's majority Shiite Muslim population, and this would spell big trouble with the already restive and resentful Sunnis, among others; on the other hand, fiddling with the process to produce a more acceptable outcome would look like, well, fiddling with the process.
L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. chief in Iraq, insists that there's no way Iraq could be ready for elections this year, and considering that the country is emerging from a history of totalitarian rule, it's a reasonable point. But devising an arcane and incomprehensible system of caucuses to pick delegates to an assembly - which is the current plan - and then calling it representative government smacks of self-delusion. We call it self-delusion because no one else - most of all the Iraqis - will be fooled into thinking that this isn't Washington's way of cooking up the kind of government it wants.
The chief Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, wants elections, period. One Iraqi, one vote. He accuses the Bush administration of trying to impose a pliable government on Iraq as it heads toward U.S. elections, and it's hard to disagree with that.
Nonetheless, when Mr. Bremer emerged from a White House meeting Friday he said the United States was sticking to its guns. To avoid the likely conflagration that would accompany elections, the Americans want to press ahead with indirect, sort-of, half-plausible democracy.
The question, though, is what to do about the Shiite clerics, who up to now have not opposed the United States but who have begun to act as though destiny (and 60 percent of the population) is on their side. The administration knows there's trouble afoot - it must, if all it can think to do is turn to the United Nations for help. Washington is prepared to put aside its contempt for the world body, and offer the iniquitous French, Germans and Russians a share of the reconstruction loot, if only they'll help the United States get out of what looks more and more like a terrible fix. The idea is that the United Nations could give its blessing to the American plan, and maybe have a hand in carrying it out, on the theory that that might be enough to pacify the ayatollahs.
It's a long shot. The United Nations has no interest in providing window dressing. As for the clerics, it's hard to compromise when you've called for free elections - and know you'd win them. The Bush administration, at least, is clear-eyed enough - or desperate enough - to realize it needs assistance. The price? It must finally allow the United Nations to take on a constructive and central role in helping Iraqis plot their future.