"The judicial court of the Organization of al Qaeda in Iraq has ruled that it is a duty to uphold God's law and kill those who have declared themselves God's partners in drafting this constitution."

-- Abu Musab Zarqawi

WITH THAT statement, which appeared on an al Qaeda Web site Thursday, Iraq's al Qaeda network at last made explicit the goals of the Iraqi insurgency: to prevent a freely elected, constitutional government from taking power and to promulgate a totalitarian Islamic republic instead.

In a certain sense, this death threat should bring comfort to Americans fighting in Iraq and to the Iraqis struggling to finish their delayed constitution, which is supposed to be ready on Monday. Had al Qaeda set out to prove to a growing number of doubters that the war in Iraq really is about democracy -- and not about oil, hubris or imperialism -- its leaders couldn't have done so more clearly. The statement also underlined the growing gap between those Islamic clerics who want a constitution and those who want dictatorship. Shortly after meeting with Iraq's most important Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, another Shiite Muslim leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, told a crowd in the holy city of Najaf to support the constitution in order to unify the country. "We should not let this chance of accomplishing this goal to go away," he said.

But the al Qaeda statement also illustrates the extraordinary importance of completing the constitution as soon as possible: If anything, the importance of finishing as close as possible to the original Aug. 15 deadline is greater this week than last. While a day or two's delay might not be tragic, a much longer one could plunge the country into greater chaos, particularly if the constitution's insurgent opponents begin to feel that their strategy is working. American, European and Arab leaders should, over the next few days, focus all possible effort on persuading, cajoling and arm-twisting the Iraqis into a compromise. The future of Iraqi democracy depends on it.