The failure to draft a new Iraqi constitution by yesterday's deadline represents another blow to President Bush's attempts to show progress that would pave the way for U.S. troop withdrawals, some analysts said yesterday, but U.S. officials called it a temporary setback and hailed Iraqi leaders for staying at the negotiating table.
Bush, who last week expressed confidence that the deadline would be met, issued a statement applauding "the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators" as they continued to talk. At a news conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the decision to extend the deadline by seven days a victory for rule of law and predicted the Iraqis would reach agreement by Monday.
"We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq," Rice said. "The new constitution will be the most important document in the history of the new Iraq. We are confident that they will complete this process and continue on the path toward elections for a permanent government at the end of the year."
The delay may not have much lasting significance if it leads to a document with broader support across sectarian lines. Negotiators have been divided over delicate questions such as women's rights in an Islamic society and the degree of regional control that Shiite and Kurdish sections would enjoy. U.S. officials noted that representatives of the Sunni minority remain involved, deeming that critical to defusing popular support for the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
"It's quite remarkable how much the process has become more inclusive over the last couple of months," Rice said. She added that any final document should guarantee women's rights. "We've been very clear that a modern Iraq will be an Iraq in which women are recognized as full and equal citizens," Rice said. "And I have every confidence that that is how Iraqis feel."
Some analysts saw the missed deadline as a sign that the Bush administration has lost control over the situation. "They really have let the process drift for a long time," said Flynt L. Leverett, a former Bush national security aide now at the Brookings Institution. "Now they can't cajole or exhort people to reach closure, and it furthers the impression of fecklessness and that they don't have a strategy."
Others said there is still time. "It's better late than never," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy planning official who chairs Lehigh University's department of international relations. "I don't see it as a terrible thing. One delay is acceptable. But anything further would have serious political consequences."
The administration has clung to deadlines such as yesterday's to maintain a sense of momentum toward building a new Iraq even as U.S. casualties mount. But the delay in forming a government after the historic January election ate into already limited time to complete a constitution. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari took three months to name a cabinet, leaving just over 10 weeks to write it.
The time frame forced the constitutional committee to work off the Transitional Administrative Law written during the initial U.S. occupation by U.S. and U.N. experts, rather than start from scratch. But the transition law left several key questions to be addressed among Iraq's disparate communities, which in the end could not resolve their differences on two points.
U.S. officials worked feverishly in recent days to prod the Iraqis to reach agreement by yesterday, even if it meant deferring resolution of the toughest issues. After meeting with his foreign policy team last week, Bush said he was "operating on the assumption" that the deadline would be met, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was dispatched to all five Sunday talk shows with a similar message.
"The Iraqis tell me that they can finish it and they will finish it tomorrow," he said on ABC.
But some specialists said the administration is fixated on artificial deadlines at the expense of addressing substantive issues. "There's no doubt the administration has the ability to force an agreement in the next seven days," but if it is one that does not resolve the underlying issues "that's a much, much bigger failure than failing to meet a deadline," said Judith Kipper, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"There's a bit of a message to the administration: 'Don't rush this. . . . We need to do this right, not fast,' " said Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who advised the U.S.-led occupation authority on constitutional issues. The bid to meet the deadline, he added, was driven by the political imperative of bringing troops home as soon as possible. "It's shameful," he said. "It's constitutional malpractice."
Bush and Rice maintained some distance from the process yesterday. The president's statement made no mention of U.S. involvement. "We wish the Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people well as the negotiators complete the constitutional drafting process," he said.
Rice said it is an Iraqi process, not an American one. "I believe they are going to finish this," she said, adding: "I think that they are very much focused on a course that will bring this to conclusion at the end of seven days."