While President Bush was telephoning an influential Shiite leader to lobby for changes in the new constitution being written in Baghdad last week, Iraq's terrorist forces were busy targeting electric power lines in the countryside. Their priorities of destruction reveal how the terrorists intend to win the war they wage -- and how they can be countered.

Bush called Abdul Aziz Hakim early Thursday, Iraq time, to express concern about three issues: women's rights, delaying bringing a new federal system into effect and softening rules under which ex-Baathists are excluded from government jobs.

These changes, Bush said, would increase the chances of the constitution being accepted by Iraq's Sunni minority. Shiite and Kurdish leaders agreed late Friday to accommodate Bush by amending the draft they had written earlier last week, according to Iraqi sources in Baghdad.

Most important, the Shiites and Kurds agreed that they would let the parliament that will be elected in December decide on the laws determining the scope of autonomy to be given to Shiite and Kurdish regions under a decentralized federal government, just as Bush asked.

However successful or well-intentioned, Bush's tardy intervention on behalf of the Sunnis risks emboldening the ex-Baathists and foreign jihadists who stoke the rebellion in the Sunni-inhabited areas of Iraq. Until now, they have shown relatively little interest in constitutions of any kind.

But the insurgents have made the sustained targeting of infrastructure a major part of an increasingly sophisticated campaign to destroy public confidence in the Iraqi government. The rebels want to reinstall terrorism as the governing principle of Iraq and prevent free votes on the constitution in mid-October and for a new government in December.

Instead of set battles, the insurgents mount terrorist spectaculars -- coordinated bombings and attacks on civilians -- and have moved from hitting "random targets of opportunity to sophisticated planning with strategic and tactical objectives against specific high-value targets," according to a recent analysis by a private security firm in Iraq.

The attacks are aimed at spreading fear and anger in the population, beginning with the Sunnis. Defeating these tactics will require more U.S. help for Iraqis in protecting critical infrastructure and less U.S. pressure on Hakim and others to grant Sunni leaders aligned with the insurgents an effective veto over the constitution -- which only increases the intimidation effect.

Repeatedly over the past 18 months, big chunks of U.S. aid -- at least $3.4 billion, according to one report -- intended for repairing or building Iraqi infrastructure were shifted into increased spending on Iraqi forces, military equipment and other direct "security" needs. A $70 million fund to clean up polluted rivers around Basra was shifted, for example, to strengthen administration at the then corruption-drenched Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.

"We have been able to increase production of electricity, but we can't get the increases to consumers because of sabotage," Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi told me by telephone from Baghdad last week. "The power grid is now a primary target for the Baathists."

The crippling psychological effect of this reverse "hearts and minds" campaign by the terrorists was illustrated last week by an attack on electric lines that prevented water from being pumped into Baghdad -- just as the politicians reached preliminary agreement on a constitution devoted to high-minded principles of freedom and democracy.

Chalabi -- the target a year ago of accusations of treason and chicanery leveled in the press by anonymous U.S. officials whom he had apparently antagonized -- has survived that smear campaign and emerged as a key policymaker in Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's government. Chalabi today works smoothly with U.S. commanders on his primary portfolio: infrastructure protection.

Changes in security on Iraq's pipelines helped increase oil exports from 1.4 million to 1.6 million barrels a day in July, Chalabi said. With U.S. help, the government was able to deploy regular Iraqi army units to replace or oversee tribal guards, who had a vested interest in making the pipelines leaky and unsafe enough for their U.S.-provided salaries to continue.

Chalabi landed in hot water with the American overseers of occupation in part because of his abrasive insistence that they did not understand Iraqi culture and priorities well enough to make those kinds of distinctions -- and refused to listen to Iraqis who did.

He declined to discuss the constitution when we spoke on Wednesday, and went out of his way to praise U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for his low-key support for the drafting process. But Chalabi's original point -- that Iraqis are ready to choose their own form of government and leaders -- was unnecessarily put at risk once again by the White House.

jimhoagland@washpost.com