The White House expected to be celebrating Iraq's new constitution this morning. Instead, Bush administration officials are waking up to reports that Iraq's National Assembly missed the Aug. 15 deadline for agreeing on a new constitution and that "the Iraqi political process" has "descended toward paralysis."
Just a week ago, George W. Bush was expressing his adamant optimism that the National Assembly would meet the Aug. 15 deadline. "We have made it clear that we believe that constitution can be and should be agreed upon by August 15th," Bush said. "And so I'm operating on the assumption that it will be agreed upon by August the 15th." That sort of decree used to work OK back home for Bush, but it apparently hasn't had much effect in what he likes to call "the free and sovereign nation" of Iraq. The interim leaders there apparently have minds of their own, and they haven't fallen so completely in line with the president's Obi-Wan Kenobi routine.
Less than a half-hour before Iraq's interim charter was to expire, the National Assembly agreed unanimously Monday night to extend the deadline by another week. While White House officials have said in the past that it was important to get the constitution out of the National Assembly by Aug. 15 in order to stay on track for a ratification vote on Oct. 15 and an election on Dec. 15, that schedule can probably survive a one-week delay.
The larger question: Can the National Assembly finish the constitution over the course of the next week -- or ever, even? As Reuters reports, the discussions Monday "appeared to have widened rifts among Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular groups." Leaders of various factions told the New York Times that disagreements involving oil, the role of Islam and the distribution of political power "grew sharper and more numerous" as the day went on. The Times says that some leaders expressed pessimism "that such vast differences could be resolved at all, much less in seven days."
Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni involved in the negotiations, offered a stark assessment of how much work is still be done. "The differences are huge, and there is not enough determination from the political leaders to solve the problems," Mutlak told the Times. "Almost 50 percent of the constitution is not finished yet."
Although one unidentified Bush administration official told the Times that "there's a lot of nervousness" within the administration, the White House is trying to put the best spin possible on the setback: Condoleezza Rice is insisting that the Iraqis "are going to finish this" and said, in a neat bit of double-speak, that the delay is proof of "considerable momentum" toward completion.
Scholars and other observers say the White House has put itself in a bad spot. "We set ourselves up for political embarrassment by pressing so obsessively for this one particular deadline, and I think we need to listen more to our Iraqi interlocutors," Larry Diamond, a Hoover Institution scholar who was an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, told the Associated Press.