THE LONGER Iraqi political leaders struggled last week to reach a compromise on a draft constitution, the worse the violence around the country seemed to grow. That was grimly logical: Not only are Islamic extremists such as Abu Musab Zarqawi dedicated to disrupting the U.S.-backed construction of a new Iraqi political order, but the prospective losers in that process have new reason to rebel. Iraq's novel principles of democracy and federalism stand to disempower the Sunni minority that ruled under Saddam Hussein, and to disadvantage the Baghdad-based Shiite movement led by Moqtada Sadr, which once again threatens to take up arms. Fear that the constitution would escalate rather than ease a war still mostly fought by U.S. troops prompted American envoys, and finally President Bush himself, to intervene in an attempt to catalyze compromise. Negotiations continued through Friday; the result, at best, may be a flawed but somewhat more flexible charter that will allow future democratic parliaments to work out crucial details of federalism and the role of religion in government.
The probability remains that the military conflict in Iraq, which was temporarily eased by last January's elections, will feed on a continuing political struggle. A scheduled referendum on the constitution in October could alter that momentum, either by providing the constitution with a strong popular mandate or by defeating it, which opponents can accomplish by winning a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's 18 provinces. Yet the growing violence of recent weeks, combined with constitutional provisions that should be troubling for supporters of a secular Iraqi democracy as well as for Iraqi minorities, places the U.S. mission in the most precarious position it has experienced since the transition to Iraqi sovereignty 14 months ago.
There is no cause for despair, or for abandoning the basic U.S. strategy in Iraq, which is to support the election of a permanent national government and train security forces capable of defending it with continuing help from American troops. But it is dispiriting, and damaging to the chances for success, that President Bush still refuses to speak honestly to the country about the challenges the United States now faces, or how he intends to address them. In two major speeches on national security this week, Mr. Bush simply repeated the misleading description of Iraq he offered during his national television address in June, conflating the war with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and describing the enemy as terrorists akin to al Qaeda.
While it is true that Islamic extremist movements have made Iraq a battleground, and failure to defeat them would be a catastrophe for U.S. security, the main challenge remains the nationalist and mostly secular Sunni insurgency, which is fighting for control of Iraq, not of Islam. Mr. Bush breezily praised the constitutional process as if it were the antithesis of the military conflict, rather than a political expression of the same Iraqi power struggle. He boasted that Iraq will have a constitution that "honors women's rights" and "the rights of minorities" even though the prevailing draft raises serious questions about both.
In fact, depending on the future balance of power in the Iraqi parliament, the constitution as it stood late last week could allow the emergence of a Shiite mini-state in Iraq's south closely allied to Iran, with de facto rule by clerics and a continuation of the oppression of women and non-Shiites already widely reported in the region. American military defense of such an entity would be hard to justify. Mr. Bush seems to understand this danger, among others: hence his timely phone call on Thursday to Abdul Aziz Hakim, the powerful Shiite leader who has pressed for that radical "federal" solution. No doubt the president frankly shared his thinking with the Iraqi cleric, whose movement appeared to offer some concessions Friday. If the president would be as candid with the American public, he would improve his chances of gaining the support he will need during the critical and trying months ahead.