NAJAF, Iraq -- As the United States considers changing its plan to bring stable government to Iraq, its quandary grows more acute: stick with proposals for an unelected assembly and risk a revolt by the Shiite majority, or cave to a Shiite ayatollah's demand for a direct vote and possibly alienate Kurdish and Sunni minorities.
A wrong move could ignite the already combustible political climate in a nation of competing ethnic and cultural groups, all eager to promote their conflicting agendas after more than three decades of totalitarian rule.
Caught in the middle are 130,000 American troops who have suffered 500 dead since the Iraq war began March 20. At stake is the future of Iraq and President Bush's administration.
The dilemma centers on the June 30 deadline for the formal end of the occupation and establishment of a sovereign Iraqi government. American forces will stay in Iraq but in fewer numbers. They will gradually hand security responsibilities to the Iraqis, thereby reducing the risk of American casualties as Bush campaigns for re-election.
Threatening that timetable is the demand of Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most prominent Shiite leader, for direct elections to a legislature that will select a new government.
The American plan calls for legislators to be chosen in 18 regional caucuses, which Shiites fear could be manipulated to promote U.S.-favored candidates.
Al-Sistani also wants the elected legislature to have a voice in whether coalition troops stay in Iraq beyond the transfer of power, and says an interim constitution should be subject to the approval of an elected assembly.
U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer maintains there is no time to organize an election given the ongoing insurgency and absence of voter rolls. Bremer has suggested the plan could be refined to accommodate Shiite demands but has also insisted that the June 30 deadline is not negotiable.
Seeking a way out of the impasse, the Bush administration is turning to the United Nations -- which it shunned before and during the war. Bremer and the current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi, plan to meet Monday in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss what role the world body can play in Iraq -- before and after the transfer of sovereignty.
"Of course, the involvement of the U.N. will undoubtedly give greater international legitimacy to the process," Pachachi said last week. Iraq wants the United Nations to help write a constitution, compile a voters' list and conduct a census, he said.
Pachachi and Bremer will be looking to Annan to confirm through a "visible and clear" statement what he has already stated in letters to the Governing Council -- that no credible elections can be held before July 1 -- according to an official from the Coalition Provisional Authority.
"There isn't going to be a new plan," said the official, who declined to be named. "Shiites have a profound fear of being deprived again of a meaningful voice and are worried that they may lose in the caucus system. But we will do everything we can to improve the plan."
Although Shiites are believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, they have been suppressed for generations by the minority Sunnis. With the overthrow of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime last April, Shiites hope to translate their superior numbers into political power.
Unlike the Sunnis, the Shiites have generally refrained from attacking U.S. forces. That goodwill could disappear and even be replaced by open hostility if al-Sistani is ignored.
"I think al-Sistani should be taken very, very seriously," said Juan R. Cole, an expert on Iraqi Shiites from the University of Michigan. "To ignore him will be a big mistake."
Clerics wield enormous influence in the Shiite community. As a sign of clerical power, al-Sistani's lieutenants got up to 30,000 people to march in support of his demands Thursday in the southern city of Basra.
A day later, al-Sistani's representative in the holy city of Karbala threatened protests and possibly "confrontations" with the occupying forces if the ayatollah's demands are rejected.
"Only through elections can there be a genuine transfer of power," Sadr al-Deen al-Qoubanji of the Shiite Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq told worshippers Friday in this Shiite holy city, where the Iranian-born al-Sustani has lived for 50 years.
Balancing the interests of Iraq's diverse communities has bedeviled rulers since the country was carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Clashes between Shiites and Sunnis are not uncommon. In December, a Sunni mosque was bombed in Baghdad, killing three people. On Jan. 9, a car bomb killed five people outside a Shiite mosque in Baqouba, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city in a mostly Sunni region.
Already, the country's Sunni community resents what it considers American bias toward the Shiites. That perception makes it difficult to lure significant numbers of Sunnis away from the insurgency, centered in the "Sunni Triangle" north and west of Baghdad.
In the north, many Sunnis fear domination by ethnic Kurds, who form an estimated 20 percent of the Iraqi population. Armed Kurdish militias fought alongside U.S. troops during the war and are the most pro-American group in Iraq.
The goal of the Kurds is to maintain and expand the autonomy they've enjoyed in the north since the 1991 Gulf War. Kurdish politicians would like to expand their control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk, historically a Kurdish city but one under Saddam's control until the collapse of his regime.
Any expansion of Kurdish autonomy would alarm neighboring Turkey, which fears a revival of a secessionist war by its own Kurdish minority.
American officials have used their influence to try to dampen Kurdish expectations while suggesting the notion of federalism, under which Kurds as well as other groups could manage their own affairs within a unified Iraqi state.
That has not gone down well with Sunni Arabs in the north, who fear federalism is a codeword for Kurdish rule. Bowing to Shiite demands, however, could encourage Kurdish politicians to press their own self-rule demands.
The prospect of Iraq breaking up along ethnic and cultural lines may seem remote. However, Iraq's neighbors Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Iran have already warned publicly against steps that might lead to such a split.