Sabri Rumayidh, the beleaguered provincial governor in this southern Iraqi city, barked into the telephone Thursday with the urgency of a man under the gun. Many guns.
On the roof of his office were two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, shouldered by tribesmen whom Rumayidh had called in as muscle after a protest by 4,000 people a day earlier and rumors of another on Thursday demanding that he resign and make way for elections. In the courtyard were two dozen more tribesmen with AK-47 assault rifles, some of them sporting bandoliers over their traditional gowns. A gaggle of smiling men hung out in the deserted lobby with heavy machine guns, their ammunition spilling across the floor.
"Did you send the patrol?" Rumayidh pleaded with the city's police chief, his second call in a few minutes. "There's only four policemen here with one Kalashnikov and 20 bullets. Send 10 or 15 if you want to protect the building."
With that, Rumayidh packed up and departed, his entourage followed and the gate of the office was padlocked. But left behind was a standoff over the question at the heart of the plan for Iraq's political transition: Who leads the country, and who chooses the leaders? Guns were drawn, clerics promised more protests and civil disobedience until elections were held, and the U.S.-led administration acknowledged its difficult task in bringing legitimacy to the process it is trying to oversee.
'A question of acceptance'
"No bullets have been fired, and that's worth recording," said John Bourne, the coordinator for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Nasiriyah, a Shiite Muslim city about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. But, he added: "It is a question of acceptance. The ultimate test of legitimacy is: Do they accept it? Do a sufficient majority of the people accept the results?"
The fault lines that have emerged in Nasiriyah reveal the forces -- and dangers -- shaping the U.S. plan to create an Iraqi government and turn over sovereignty this summer. In streets along the Euphrates River, Nasiriyah's assertive Islamic parties have proven their ability this week to rally followers, with or without the blessing of the country's leading cleric. Violence lurks under the surface. And the U.S.-led administration, residents say, has little goodwill on which to draw in advocating anything short of direct elections.
"The protests have begun peacefully," said Abdel-Ridda Agula Obeid, 45, a baker sitting on the sidewalk outside the Egyptian Nights restaurant. "But if we don't receive our rights, we'll take them by force."
The protest Wednesday outside Rumayidh's office revolved around what has increasingly become a demand of the Shiite majority, which accounts for 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. Since December, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential cleric, has rejected a U.S. transition plan that envisions regional caucuses to choose a transitional assembly and insisted instead on direct, nationwide elections. Last week, his representatives urged followers to refrain from protests until a U.N. team determined the feasibility of holding elections, but hard-line Islamic parties have ignored that edict.
A focus on the government
The focus of protests in Nasiriyah, however, is not on the national transition but on the appointed council that governs the city and surrounding province.
"We demand the dissolution of the illegitimate transitional council which does not represent anyone but the occupation authorities who appointed it," read a poster put up by followers of one of the parties that urged supporters to participate in the protest. "This is a very dangerous stage. The lackeys who stand in front of your colossal will will fail."
Occupation authorities in Nasiriyah estimated that about 4,000 protesters turned out Wednesday, marching to Rumayidh's office.
"No to Israel! No to imperialism! No to America!" the crowd chanted. Signs read, "No to appointments, yes to elections."
Rumayidh left his office, but returned Thursday, joined by his armed entourage.
"They are demanding something that all Iraqis want, and this is elections," said Rumayidh, who serves as the leader of the powerful Albu Salih tribe. "It's a proper word, but they're using it to make troubles. This is blackmail."
Rumors about Rumayidh
"My resignation is impossible," he added, as bodyguards hustled him to his car outside the building. Italian peacekeepers, the targets of a devastating suicide bombing in Nasiriyah in November, arrived only after the tribesmen had disbanded.
By Thursday afternoon, rumors were already rife that Rumayidh had quit.
"He has stepped down. He won't return," said Muhsin Nouri Musawi, a 30-year-old cleric, standing near the office. "There will be a general election, and a new governor will be elected. Elections represent legitimacy and the rule of law."
Musawi belongs to the Fudhala Movement, one of two Islamic parties that organized the demonstration in Nasiriyah. The other is an allied group loyal to Moqtada Sadr, another cleric, whose father was a popular ayatollah who was slain in 1999. Both are among the most vocal of Iraq's plethora of Shiite parties, and they enjoy support among the poorest and most disenfranchised in such southern cities as Nasiriyah, Amarah and Basra. While avowedly respectful of Sistani, they have challenged his authority even as they have supported his demand for elections.
At the Sadr office, dozens of men clad in black and belonging to the group's militia crowded inside. They carried four rocket-propelled grenade launchers, more than a dozen Kalashnikov assault rifles and an assortment of pistols, rifles, hand grenades and ammunition clips. One of the fighters was a 13-year-old, Abbas Abdullah, who wore a black headband bearing the militia's name, the Mahdi Army.
'We'll be the flame'
Sheik Aws Khafaji, 31, the head of the office, said the protest was not against Rumayidh himself, who appears to be somewhat popular in the city. Rather, they wanted the entire 36-member provincial council, appointed in September, to resign.
"If it succeeds in Nasiriyah, it can serve as an example for other cities, and this is what frightens the officials of the occupation," he said. "God willing, we'll be the flame. We're going to prove to the people that elections are possible in Iraq."
As he spoke, his militiamen had entered the muddy courtyard outside, their chants audible inside Khafaji's office.
"We're impatient," they shouted, drilling in a circle. "We want death tonight."
Khafaji said the next step was civil disobedience, which he said would begin next week after a four-day Muslim holiday. The group plans to rally thousands to occupy the street outside the provincial office 24 hours a day, blocking anyone from entering until Rumayidh and the rest of the council resign. "We are determined and we have great hope," he said.
Bourne, the occupation official, also expressed displeasure with the effectiveness of the provincial council and said he planned to hold discussions with groups in the city to overhaul as much as one-fourth of the council's membership. He acknowledged that tensions were running "a bit high" and said he was unhappy with the governor's dispatch of armed men, although he felt that it would not set a precedent.
"I hope it was the last occasion we saw of RPGs and machine guns in the streets of Nasiriyah," said Bourne, a Briton who arrived in the city in September. "It's my job to make sure that there are not RPGs and machine guns on the street corner, that they get removed as soon as they appear and that people realize this is not the way to compete for power."
Asked how he would navigate the process of bringing legitimacy to the council, he answered, "With difficulty."
The view from the Egyptian Nights
At the Egyptian Nights, the owner, Nabil Hassan, sat with Akram Muhsin, one of his cooks. Across the street was faded graffiti denouncing former president Saddam Hussein -- "iniquitous," in the words of one. More recent graffiti pledged support for Sistani and his demand. "Elections are the right of the people," one slogan read. "Don't confiscate those rights."
Both said they supported Wednesday's protest and derided the council, which they said served the occupation. They were frustrated by the lack of what they said was improvement in their lives and saw elections as a referendum on their circumstances.
"Iraqis haven't seen anything from the occupation," Mushin said. "We haven't seen any progress."
Hassan leaned back in his white chair, as a boisterous wedding party barreled down the street.
"Everybody is looking for freedom and elections," he said. "This is the right of every person."