The Iraqi Governing Council in recent weeks has faced the threat of extinction and, unfortunately, won a reprieve from the Bush administration.

Two weeks ago, the US viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was called to Washington on very short notice to consult with the Bush administration over the continuing disaster in Iraq–most particularly what should be done about the Governing Council, which has become a source of contempt from both Iraqis and the US military.

The Council has done nothing for the Iraqi populace. It meets three times a week, makes no decisions, and has no power. The power rests with the US authority, and Iraqis know this. If the power goes out, they go the Americans. If a relative is arrested, they appeal to the Americans. If they need permits, jobs, or help, the Governing Council is less than useless.

About the only business the Council can conduct is nepotism. Its members–particularly the former exiles on the Council–have spent their time in office winning political appointments and profitable business contracts for friends, relatives, and business associates. While these members have spent their time traveling abroad or networking for personal gain, they’ve missed more Council meetings than they attended. Meanwhile, there’s been little oversight of the cabinet ministers and damn little money available to get their offices outfitted and running.

Even worse, the Governing Council was nowhere near making a decision on a timetable or process for setting up a new government. A deadline for drafting the timetable, as required by UN resolution, was fast approaching, and the factions on the Council were at absolute deadlock. And, surprise, the Governing Council had every reason not to move forward: setting up a new government would mean they’d put themselves out of business–and a highly profitable business it is, too.

After his emergency meeting in Washington DC, Paul Bremer flew back to Iraq and laid down the law, telling the Governing Council what the timetable and process for a new Iraqi government will be. The US will draft an interim constitution by February. An interim legislature will be chosen in May, its representatives selected by town and regional councils. The US will then turn over the running of the Iraqi government completely to the interim legislature in June. Elections and a legitimate constitution will follow at some undefined time in the future, perhaps in a couple of years. Maybe. If the security situation improves.

In the meantime many Iraqis are uncomfortable with the selection process for the interim legislature. The town and regional councils, of course, are all made up of people chosen by the US military. One media commentator said that this selection process amounts to a job security program for the members of the Governing Council, since their cousins, business partners, associates, and party members all staff the majority of the town councils–except in the Sunni triangle, where unpopular mayors are assassinated or run out of town.

So far, the two leading Shiite clerics in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, have both refused to back this plan, insisting that Iraqis must be allowed elect the members of the new legislature. Certainly their experience with the Governing Council is a strong argument for supporting elections as soon as possible.

But that puts the US in a bind. The Shiites are our main allies in Iraq and they make up about 60% of the population, but they have strong religious ties to Iran, which George Bush has declared a member of the “Axis of Evil.” If the Bush administration allows a vote, the Shiites are likely to win a majority of the legislature and may–I say “may,” because nothing is absolutely certain–align themselves with the fundamentalist government of Iran. Yet, without the promise of elections, the Shiites might decide we’re not their allies after all. And the dicey “security situation” in Iraq could worse very quickly.

The Bush administration needs to make up its mind: either hold elections in good faith and mollify an increasingly angry Iraqi populace or continue a useless effort to control an ultimately uncontrollable situation. It’s time to ditch the Governing Council and walk our talk about free and fair elections. If Iraq’s new government decides to ally itself with Iran, well, then Bush & Co. can just learn to practice a little diplomacy, for a change.