By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington
A US adviser on Iraq's new constitution says Islam will be a prominent feature of the post-Saddam government but a democracy can still be born.
Noah Feldman says the establishment of a secular democracy was never likely in Iraq.
Iraqis are turning to religious leaders for direction
But he adds that the United States should not necessarily fear the rise of religious parties and leaders.
He told an audience at the New America Foundation in Washington that he has seen the emergence of a group of "Islamic democrats" who may be clerics but also say they support issues such as free speech and women's rights, which are held dear in the US.
Mr Feldman - a professor at New York University Law School - joined the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance led by Paul Bremer in Iraq - as an adviser on framing a new constitution.
He resigned from that position last week, but is continuing to offer suggestions to Iraqis themselves in a more informal role.
Rise of religious parties
Clerics and representatives of Islamic parties who form the largest grouping in the US-appointed Governing Council have all said they are committed to democracy, Mr Feldman told New America.
Even the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) concedes, for instance, that the new legal code does not have to mirror exactly the strict Sharia system.
Mr Feldman said the words - which sound so reasonable to Western ears - will have to be followed by actions.
But though the clerics are emerging as natural community leaders in Iraq, he believes an Iran-style theocracy which is opposed by Washington is unlikely to take root in Baghdad.
Nevertheless, the US must allow the Iraqis to make their own way after deciding not to install a military governor or junta after the invasion which could have been an option, Mr Feldman said.
"We have to make that work - we can't just pick up and walk away. We have put the prestige of the US on the line... that democracy is practicable," Mr Feldman told New America.
"It's very important that the US not be perceived as writing the Iraqi constitution," he said. "It must be of, by and for the Iraqis."
That desire is made more difficult by the stifling of political opposition during the Saddam Hussein and Baathist era.
"Iraqis who have been living in Iraq are not well politically organised yet," Mr Feldman said. "Exiles are increasingly very well organised politically - they dominate in the council."
The deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein and any future capture or death of their father Saddam Hussein will help to convince Iraqis that the former regime will not and cannot return.
But other aspects of life are key to the success of a post-Saddam society.
"The security side of things has to be delivered but, that said, the situation does not feel like anarchy at all. It feels relatively safe," said Mr Feldman who was in Iraq until the beginning of this month.
"Iraqis are not living in chaos. There are things for sale in the stores, there are fully functioning markets and people are having meetings," he said.
"But there is a huge perception of fear among Iraqis - that's just as destructive to the broader public sphere as if it were true."