Bush administration hoped for on-time constitution

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the Iraqi parliament “needed a little more time” to work out compromises but had made “substantial progress” towards drafting a constitution despite missing is self-imposed deadline.
The process is working in an orderly fashion, and “I believe they are going to finish this,” Rice said. “We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq.” She told reporters at the State Department the task of emerging from years of tyranny was necessarily complicated.

Even before Iraqi politicians extended the deadline to complete a draft constitution, the Bush administration was trying to lower expectations. Said State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack: “You don’t always get it right the first time around.” A compromise document that emerged from overtime negotiations in Baghdad put off key issues that the United States wanted to see resolved clearly and quickly. Iraq’s parliament agreed to a seven-day extension after politicians failed to meet a midnight Monday deadline for agreement on the charter.

The drafters had reached a tentative deal, resolving issues like oil revenues and the country’s name but putting off decisions on the most contentious questions — federalism, women’s rights, the role of Islam and possible Kurdish autonomy.

An agreement to defer some of the tougher issues had seemed likely for days, and the Bush administration sought to put the best face on it.

“Democracy is, in fact, a process,” McCormack said, noting that the US constitution was an imperfect document that has been amended many times. “You don’t always get it right the first time around.” The weeklong delay was an unwelcome surprise, however, after the US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, had predicted that the charter would be ready Monday. He was in the parliament hall Monday evening, apparently expecting to congratulate Iraqis for meeting the self-imposed deadline.

Washington regards an on-time constitution as an important first step towards full self-government for Iraq. Any significant delay would probably also delay the day US forces can depart.

More than 1,800 American forces have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion more than two years ago, and polls show public support for the war is dropping.

The drafting of the constitution, even with US help, exposed deeper divisions and resentments among Iraq’s ethnic groups than the United States had bargained for.

Especially worrisome to the United States were demands last week for a self-governing Shiite region. The majority Shiites are the group that has most benefited politically from the ouster of Saddam Hussein and that has worked most closely with US advisers.

Khalilzad interceded directly in recent weeks and even proposed language to deal with some of the thorniest questions.

“When there have been differences between the various forces with regard to a particular issue, and they’ve asked for my help, I have proposed to them options for bridging the differences between them,” Khalilzad said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. “Failure is not an option, and if they need my help, I have told them I’m available at any time.” The United States has been clear with Iraqi drafters that it wants to see women’s rights protected in the constitution, and President Bush pressed that point during a question-and-answer session with reporters at his Texas ranch last week.

“We think it’s very important that Iraq be for all Iraqis, an Iraqi democracy be for all Iraqis, men and women as well as different ethnic groups, different religious groups,” McCormack said Monday. “And they should take that into account in the drafting of their constitution.”

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