The US coalition's plans to hand over power to Iraqis by June next year has run into rough weather after Grand Ayat Allah al-Sistani questioned the plan to hand power to a government designated by a transitional assembly chosen by caucuses of selected notables.
"We're going to discuss Ayat Allah Sistani's proposal and Governing Council president Jalal Talabani will inform him of the results of our discussions," council member Rajaa Khuzai, said before the meeting on Saturday.
The US-led coalition said it considered the complaint significant enough for a major overhaul of the November 15 agreement signed with Talabani.
US officials have maintained that they are discussing the Shia demands with the interim leadership as part of a "healthy" debate.
But a senior official told the Washington Post that the prior polls, which the coalition has so far resisted, were now a "possibility" and appeared to give Sistani a veto over their newly unveiled plans.
"If he says no to the caucuses, then we have to figure out a way to get elections done," the official told the Post. "We're scrambling to find a solution."
Bush defends plan
US President George W Bush met four members of the Governing Council during his lightning stopover in Baghdad on Thursday evening and discussed the handover.
Challenged about the demands of Shia religious leaders for immediate elections, Bush admitted that their grievances constituted an "overarching flaw" in the new transition blueprint which he had discussed with his Iraqi interlocutors.
"The game plan they've got now in place is a good plan. We've got to be realistic and patient about how they proceed"
George W Bush
But he added that he still thought "the game plan they've got now in place is a good plan" and was one that he himself had
"To get where they need to be is going to require debate and discussion - and that's healthy," he told journalists on Air Force One. "We've got to be realistic and patient about how they proceed."
The Governing Council's president sought to play down the significance of the Shia opposition, insisting their grievance was just one of implementation.
"He (Sistani) agreed with this agreement which I signed with Paul Bremer and he didn't ask for any changes, but he asked that the way to elect Provisional National Assembly be a democratic election," Talabani told CNN.