WASHINGTON – The Bush administration strove Monday to put the best face on the failure of Iraqi negotiators to meet a deadline for agreeing on a constitution, with President Bush applauding their "heroic efforts" and "substantial progress."
In a written statement issued by the White House, the president, who is on vacation in Texas, hailed the Iraqis' decision to keep working toward compromises on difficult issues.
"I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue," Bush said. "Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation, and compromise."
In a brief televised appearance Monday afternoon before reporters at the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said she is confident the document will get done, although she would not predict whether all the outstanding issues will be resolved during the one-week extension. The task of emerging from years of tyranny was necessarily complicated, she said.
"I think that what this shows is that, in fact, they continue to hold together and they continue to pull together," Rice said. "They needed a little more time."
Even before Iraqi politicians extended the deadline to complete a draft constitution, the Bush administration was trying to lower expectations. Said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack (search): "You don't always get it right the first time around."
A compromise document that emerged from overtime negotiations in Baghdad put off key issues that the United States wanted to see resolved clearly and quickly. Iraq's parliament agreed to a seven-day extension after politicians failed to meet a midnight Monday deadline for agreement on the charter.
The drafters had reached a tentative deal, resolving issues like oil revenues and the country's name but putting off decisions on the most contentious questions — federalism, women's rights, the role of Islam and possible Kurdish autonomy.
An agreement to defer some of the tougher issues had seemed likely for days.
The weeklong delay was an unwelcome surprise, however, after the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad (search), had predicted that the charter would be ready Monday. He was in the parliament hall Monday evening, apparently expecting to congratulate Iraqis for meeting the self-imposed deadline.
Washington regards an on-time constitution as an important first step toward full self-government for Iraq. Any significant delay would probably also delay the day U.S forces can depart.
More than 1,800 American forces have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion more than two years ago, and polls show public support for the war is dropping.
The delay is not a disaster if it produces a more inclusive document, Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond said.
"It's a problem only because the Bush administration became so absolutely obsessed with this Aug. 15 deadline," and ignored warnings from Iraqi politicians that the timeline was unworkable, said Diamond, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq immediately following Saddam Hussein's ouster.
The drafting of the constitution, even with U.S help, exposed deeper divisions and resentments among Iraq's ethnic groups than the United States had bargained for.
Especially worrisome to the United States were demands last week for a self-governing Shiite region. The majority Shiites are the group that has most benefited politically from the ouster of Saddam Hussein (search) and that has worked most closely with U.S. advisers.
Khalilzad interceded directly in recent weeks and even proposed language to deal with some of the thorniest questions.
"When there have been differences between the various forces with regard to a particular issue, and they've asked for my help, I have proposed to them options for bridging the differences between them," Khalilzad said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "Failure is not an option, and if they need my help, I have told them I'm available at any time."