LET'S hope that President Bush was right when he described the failure of the members of the Iraqi constitutional commission to reach agreement by Monday's deadline as “a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate”. And that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was right when she described the decision to move the deadline back one week as evidence of “considerable momentum toward completion”. It is highly desirable that a constitution based on genuine consensus and good will among the Kurds, Shias and Sunnis should emerge from the extended discussions. But it is equally desirable that a constitution based on unsustainable compromises should not be the outcome. The reported reaction of those actually involved in the drafting of the constitution was markedly less optimistic than Washington's. “The differences are huge,” said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader in the negotiations. “Almost 50 per cent of the constitution is not finished yet.” Other leaders said that the disagreements on key issues, such as the role of Islam, oil revenues and devolution, had become sharper and more numerous as the Monday deadline approached and were pessimistic that the vast differences could be resolved in another seven days. If the commission fails to produce a draft by next Monday, or if the elected assembly does not approve it as suitable to be put to a national referendum in October, there is a possibility that the asembly will be dissolved and new elections held and the constitutional drafting restarted from scratch. The US adminstration is desperate to avoid this kind of delay and uncertainty which would only give comfort to the insurgents and is are therefore putting enormous pressure on the three main parties to the constitution to compromise and reach agreement; but such pressure may be counter-productive. No one believes Dr Rice when she says that the drafting of the constitution is an Iraqi, not an American, affair. The US Ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been sitting in sessions of the commission and meeting with the leaders of the negotiations almost continously; on Monday night he accompanied the President of Iraq when he went to the national assembly to seek a week's extention of the deadline. The stakes are very high for President Bush.


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