Bush Administration Reacts Cautiously to Iraq Constitution Delays

Published August 16, 2005

| FoxNews.com

The Bush administration pushed Iraqis hard to make Monday's deadline for achieving a draft constitution, and with the failure to meet that goal, officials are trying to keep their chins up for completion by next week.

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Defense Department officials are confident that the remaining issues that delayed the completion of the constitution will still be resolved, saying all parties are still at the table. He characterized the process as one of compromise, cooperation and significant progress and said a one-week extension does not seem unreasonable.

White House officials said Tuesday that Bush has been getting regular updates on the developments in the constitution process. Aides say the president is encouraged by the fact that the Iraqis are still working on the document and have expressed a commitment to finish the process.

Late Monday, President Bush complimented Iraqi drafters for making "substantial progress" on the constitution.

"I applaud the heroic efforts of Iraqi negotiators and appreciate their work to resolve remaining issues through continued negotiation and dialogue," Bush said in a statement released while he remained on a monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch. "Their efforts are a tribute to democracy and an example that difficult problems can be solved peacefully through debate, negotiation and compromise."

As the midnight deadline approached in Iraq, lawmakers in the 275-member National Assembly approved a seven-day extension to finish up work on a draft constitution after Kurdish leaders asked for additional time.

"We have to remember this is an enormously important document and what you have here is people trying to build a common future after decades of tyranny," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said late Monday.

"They have achieved a lot and they have considerable momentum toward the completion of their constitution," she continued. "Iraqis have continued to demonstrate their commitment to a new Iraq based on the rule of law and their desire for a common future. We are witnessing democracy in Iraq."

Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish framers of the charter had reached a tentative deal late Monday, resolving issues ranging from oil revenues to the country's name but putting off decisions on the most contentious questions — including federalism, women's rights, the role of Islam, and possible Kurdish autonomy.

The Shiites are demanding that Islam be the main source of legislation. That could affect the civil code, because in Islamic law, or sharia (search), women might not receive the same share of inheritance and cannot initiate divorce.

Those demands are of concern to U.S. officials, who say they have made it clear that they expect to see women's rights protected in the constitution.

"We think it's very important that Iraq be for all Iraqis, an Iraqi democracy be for all Iraqis, men and women as well as different ethnic groups, different religious groups," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday. "And they should take that into account in the drafting of their constitution."

"If the new Iraq is going to go into the 21st century at all sensibly and begin to make a difference in terms of the Muslim world, they're going to have to face that women's rights issue and they're going to have to get it right … [they can't] go on treating them like second- or third-class citizens," former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told FOX News.

When the constitution is written, the National Assembly will decide whether to give its approval. If it passes, Iraqis will vote around Oct. 15 to accept or reject the charter, leading to more elections in December for the country's first new government under the new constitution.

Administration officials have been quick to point out that delays are a part of the democratic process and consensus-building is as important as finishing the draft.

"Yes, there was an August 15 deadline to complete the constitution. There was also a way for them to avail themselves of a few more days and this is a very important process," Rice said.

"These people are working very, very hard, they have been working very long hours, and what that says is that they are really committed to putting together a document that they believe in, a document that can be a foundation for a free and democratic Iraq for all Iraqis, and that they are determined to do that," she said.

Still, the weeklong delay was certainly a disappointment to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (search), who had predicted that the charter would be ready Monday.

"I have just come from meetings with the Iraqi leaders, and they tell me they are very optimistic that they will meet the deadline. They have resolved most of the issues that divided them when they started the process. And they've got a couple of issues left, and they are going to meet again late this evening with the expectation that they will achieve success and they will have a draft ready by the end of the day tomorrow," Khalilzad told "FOX News Sunday."

On Monday evening, Khalilzad, who had offered to help Iraqis find ways to bridge their differences throughout the negotiation process, stood in the Parliament hall, apparently hoping to congratulate Iraqis for meeting the self-imposed deadline.

Administration officials have said they are pleased that for now at least it appears the political process can remain intact. In the face of unresolved constitutional disputes and ongoing insurgent violence the State Department has been careful not to raise expectations.

"Democracy is not a single point in time, and these documents aren't immutable. They, of course, change over the course of time," said McCormack.

But as remaining constitutional disputes are resolved the administration hopes minority Sunnis, who make up a significant core of the insurgency, will turn away from violence. Then, as Iraqi security forces improve, U.S. troops may begin to withdraw.

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. President Bush held no public events on Monday, but that didn't slow down the anti-war demonstration outside his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

Leading the charge is Cindy Sheehan (search), a California mother whose son was killed in Iraq last year. Sheehan said she will continue her vigil, now 10 days old, until the president talks to her. Even she now calls it a "media circus," although she said she appreciates the media's help.

"The media attention has been fabulous. We have finally gotten this war back on the front page and back on the headline news where it belongs," she said.

Sheehan met the president last year when he visited Fort Lewis, Wash., at which time he gave her a condolence kiss. Asked why she feels entitled to another visit, Sheehan sounded like a media pro.

"This one has been asked and answered so many times, I think you can read about that in another interview that I've done," she said.

In fact, this month's protest is not the first time Sheehan has been out in front opposing Bush administration policy.

At a San Francisco University rally in April for Lynne Stewart, a lawyer convicted of aiding terrorists, Sheehan said the president is disingenuous and willing to expend other people's children.

"If he thinks that it’s so important for Iraq to have a U.S.-imposed sense of freedom and democracy, then he needs to sign up his two little party-animal girls," she is quoted as saying of Bush. "9/11 was their Pearl Harbor to get their neo-con agenda through and, if I would have known that before my son was killed, I would have taken him to Canada. I would never have let him go and try and defend this morally repugnant system we have."

As Sheehan's support picked up in Crawford over the weekend, a smaller counter-demonstration popped up in support of Bush's war effort and to criticize the Sheehan-led anti-war protest.

"What they are trying to do is get average Americans to feel sad. They hope the sadness becomes anger and then the anger becomes political pressure," said one Bush supporter.

With the help of the anti-war group Moveon.org, Sheehan said she hopes to organize a nationwide candlelight vigil on Wednesday night. Separately, she has invited the president to come pray with her on Friday.

FOX News' Carl Cameron, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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