TO POINT OUT that Philadelphia in 1787 was a lot quieter than Baghdad in 2005 is something of an understatement. The men -- and they are mostly men -- who are writing the Iraqi constitution are under constant threat of assassination. Some of them have already been killed. Their country is very close to civil war. The framers have religious views ranging from extremely fundamentalist to secular, and very different ethnic and political identities as well.
Nevertheless, the announcement yesterday that they intend to finish the draft document in time for the parliament to approve it by Aug. 15 -- a decision that partly reflects U.S. opposition to a postponement -- is extremely good news. As the Iraqi elections in January proved, positive steps taken toward a permanent, legitimate government boost the morale of those Iraqis who want to live in a peaceful society, even when those steps aren't taken under the best possible conditions. More important, there is evidence that the constitution-writing process is itself driving some of the violence. Sunni terrorists have, for example, targeted Sunni politicians who are members of the constitutional commission simply because they don't want any democratic constitution to succeed. Elsewhere, in the absence of settled law, some groups have begun to impose their religious or political beliefs, creating more tension.
In principle, the Iraqis would also be better off if they resolved the most contentious issues now and not leave them to be decided later, a solution that some are recommending. But it is also extremely important that, in the rush to compromise, the constitutional panel makes no irreversible commitment to extreme forms of Islamic law, even Islamic family law. Any legal formulation that effectively gives unelected clerics the right to overrule the decisions of democratically elected politicians carries the potential not only to deprive Iraqi women of their political rights but also to undermine Iraqi democracy itself. Equally, any compromise that results in the further balkanization of Iraq could bring disaster to the whole Middle East.
This is an Iraqi process, and American diplomats have been right, so far, to stay mostly out of it. But the United States still has influence, as the events of the past few days have shown, and it should use that influence -- sparingly -- to discourage either the eventual emergence of an Iraqi Islamic republic or the destruction of the country. On those two issues, postponing a decision -- and passing the rest of the draft constitution -- is preferable to making a bad one.