Iraqi Charter a Disappointment for Bush's Team

WASHINGTON -- As Iraq's draft constitution was presented to its National Assembly and honored at a brief ceremony largely boycotted by Sunnis, U.S. President George W. Bush joined with others in his administration on Sunday in praising the charter as a milestone in the transition to democracy and the battle against insurgents.

But in the disarray in Baghdad that was becoming evident, with Sunnis and some Shiites vowing to defeat the constitution and others angrily predicting a surge in anti-government violence, statements by the president and others in his administration had the air of making a case that the situation was not as bad as it looked.

Several officials acknowledged deep regret and frustration that all their efforts had failed to produce a document that could not only establish human rights but also bring a huge disaffected element into the political process, as the Americans had hoped and predicted.

"We're disappointed that we don't have a document that has a complete consensus," said a weary senior U.S. State Department official, speaking anonymously because he did not want to be seen as criticizing the Iraqis publicly. "We think it's a good document in terms of basic rights and philosophy. How to proceed now is an issue for Iraqis to decide."

Lowering their sights, administration officials said Sunday that their task now was to keep the political process alive, even if the constitution was rejected in October, and thereby keep the disaffected Sunnis from helping to stoke more violence.

"It's a legitimate position for some Iraqis to decide that they don't like this document," the State Department official said. "I don't buy the idea that thousands of people will flock to the colors of the insurgency because their just demands in a constitution were turned down."

It was not long ago that the administration was loath to be seen as interfering in internal Iraqi politics. Yet only on Thursday, in a last-minute effort to bring about a compromise, Bush telephoned Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to press him to be more accommodating to Sunni interests. The effort failed.

The timing of the setback with the constitution was especially tough for Bush, after a summer in which continuing U.S. casualties and deaths have sent approval ratings of his handling of the war skidding to new lows. The setback also raises questions about whether the administration can cut the number of troops in Iraq by next year.

In addition, the U.S. Congress is returning with heightened criticism of the administration's war strategy. Less obvious, the administration is facing Arabs' concerns about Iraqi turmoil and what they perceive as Iran's influence on the Shiite parties in Iraq.

In the last few weeks, the Bush administration has shed its previously studied detachment from Iraqi internal politics, encouraging the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to shuttle among parties to broker a deal. His failure could lead to second-guessing.

Some experts said that the Sunni leaders brought into the process, for example, were too weak to make a deal with the Shiite and Kurdish leadership.

"With a few exceptions, these guys were not major, major players," said Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who had served earlier as a constitutional adviser to the U.S. occupation. "They've tried to use brinkmanship, and now their bluff has been called. By enforcing its deadlines, the administration has shown that they were willing to cut the Sunnis off."

Other analysts said the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the Shiite demand for a nine-province super-state in the south. U.S. policymakers were caught short when Shiites dropped their opposition to autonomy for the Kurds and instead joined them in asking for a decentralized Iraq.

What the administration emphasized this past weekend was that, for all the focus on disagreements over semi-autonomous states, the draft contains protections for human rights and legal processes that received broad support. These provisions are likely to survive whatever happens, U.S. officials argued.

"You have a real constitution that protects freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience," said Elizabeth Cheney, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "These protections are among the most far-reaching of any in the region and probably around the world."

But it was notable that while many Iraqis expressed concern that the document could limit women's rights by empowering Shiite clerics, the administration did not pick up on that issue.

Instead, Bush sought patience. "I want our folks to remember our own constitution was not unanimously received," he said, comparing the fractious debates in Iraq to those among America's founders.

What he left out of his analogy is that while the Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia was convening, there was not an insurgency in the countryside that seemed to be growing because of disaffection with the political process.