THE DEADLINE for completing a draft of Iraq's new constitution was missed yesterday to the disappointment of Iraqis and American officials who had hoped that Monday would represent another major step toward full Iraqi sovereignty. But the slip in the schedule should not be viewed -- at least at this stage -- as a permanent obstacle on the road to an Oct. 15 referendum, the Dec. 15 national elections and a constitutional government beginning Dec. 31. The negotiators, finding themselves stuck on key issues, did not throw up their hands and quit the process. Instead, they requested, and received from the National Assembly, a one-week extension to produce a final draft of a permanent constitution. The alternatives to a seven-day delay would have been worse.

The major sticking points -- the role of Islam in determining Iraqi law, issues of self-rule and regional autonomy, and the sharing of oil revenue in a federal context -- put the goal of consensus beyond the reach of the governing coalition of Kurds and Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority. Yet a short delay while working on key disputes is far better than ramrodding through the National Assembly a constitution that would elevate clerical leadership to a political role in a future Iraqi society, and that would disadvantage women, especially in the area of family law. In addition, if meeting the deadline would have meant adopting a new Iraqi constitution over the objections of an alienated Sunni bloc, then completing the document on time might not have been worth the effort.

The overriding goal must be completing the constitution by the new deadline. The additional time should be used to hammer out an agreement that will unify, not divide, the country. As in the weeks leading up to the missed deadline, the next several days will not be easy, with a violent insurgency pressing Iraqis who are struggling to put democratic building blocks in place. American leaders and coalition members must keep pressure on all the parties if success is to be achieved. Iraq has come too far, under the most daunting conditions, to turn back now. Officials have a week to decisively move Iraqi democracy forward.