WASHINGTON – A sigh of relief could be heard around Washington, D.C. Monday as 12 Sunni Arabs (search) agreed to return to the negotiating table in Iraq and help pound out a constitution by the Aug. 15 deadline for a vote by the Iraqi National Assembly (search).
U.S. officials had maintained an optimist outlook that minority Muslim faction would meet its goals despite last week's violence against constitution drafters and a boycott of talks by Sunnis demanding increased protection, a greater role in the talks and an internal investigation into the assassination of two colleagues on the committee.
All outward signs now indicate that the participation of Sunnis will ensure the draft constitution gets to the parliament before the deadline. The nation then is set to vote on the document on Oct. 15. A two-thirds majority in at least 15 of the 18 provinces is required to ratify to document. Sunni Arabs are a majority of four provinces and constitute more than 5 million of Iraq's (search) 27 million people.
State Department officials have echoed the confidence of Iraqi parliamentarians on the executive committee drafting the constitution. Those parliamentarians say the document is progressing on the timetable put forward by the interim constitution and should be ready by Aug. 1.
"It's scheduled to be completed in the timeline established," State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told FOXNews.com. "[Ratification] allows the people to firmly set the principles of an inclusive, representative and transparent governing democracy as well as universal rights for all Iraqis."
U.S. government officials say that approval of the constitution will embolden a fledgling state devastated by ongoing insurgent attacks and will serve as another step towards an eventual pullout by American and coalition forces.
"I think the situation, security, political, economic will allow [ratification] to happen [on time]," U.S Gen. Richard Myers told reporters last week. "We've been in Iraq now since 2003. Every major milestone that has been set by Iraqi people … has been met … that will continue, in my belief, to happen."
Completion of the draft didn't seem so close last Tuesday, when unknown assailants assassinated two Sunni committee members and their bodyguard drafting as they were riding in a car.
Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor and Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FOXNews.com that he believes the committee will probably meet its deadline for the draft constitution, though he would not be surprised if it asked for an extension of a few weeks. A six-month delay is afforded under the rules set by the interim constitution.
According to reporters in Baghdad, the major parties involved in the process —Shi'ites, Kurds and the Sunnis — have agreed on a rough outline of the new constitution. Two major sticking points continue to be the role that Islam will play in the new government and federalism, which underscores the ongoing debate over whether Iraq will be a strong centralized state or if provinces separated mostly over religious, ethnic and tribal differences will have more power and autonomy.
One chapter, which the Associated Press reports has earned wide consensus, gives Islam a major role in Iraqi civil law and rules out non-governmental militias.
Brown translated a copy of a draft bill of rights that was posted by the Iraq newspaper al Mada on June 30. Though the draft was not authenticated, Brown said he is certain it is legitimate, though it could be an older version.
Nonetheless, Brown said the part he read contains numerous welfare provisions as well as big concessions to individual freedoms and women's rights. In many cases, however, those provisions are qualified based on religious and moral considerations, giving the document "a very conservative flavor."
Brown added that although the constitution appears to be leading to a religious democracy, he does not expect it to be a theocracy like neighboring Iran.
Iraqi women are already protesting provisions found in an alleged updated draft circulating in Baghdad that would invoke religious law and tradition in matters of divorce, marriage and inheritance, the New York Times reported last week. For Iraqi women, this would mean a rollback of decades of women's liberties enshrined in the Iraqi legal code.
Meanwhile, some Iraq experts suggest that undue pressure has been put on the executive committee to rush a draft in order to make the highly publicized deadline, risking a bad constitution for the sake of good public relations.
"It's a double-edged sword — if they stick to the deadline and come up with a document that is not well done, they will not be helping the Iraqi people," said Abbas Khadim (search), a lecturer at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California-Berkeley and a frequent contributor to the Iraqi press.
Khadim said the inexperience of the executive committee, combined with the tendency to include a lot of gratuitous language and provisions best left for the legal code, rather than keeping it simple, begs for a delay.
"To do it within the month would be a very irresponsible move," he said.
Regardless, Vasquez said U.S. officials here have been in regular contact with the Iraqis, and have emphasized the need to approve a constitution on time.
"We encourage, during our regular contacts, the Iraqi government to proceed expeditiously on this matter to avoid providing incentive to those seeking to encourage ethnic division through violence and terrorist action," he said.
More than 8,300 Iraqi civilians, police and military have been killed since January, and more than 12,000 have been wounded as a result of the terrorist insurgency, according to recent estimates by Iraqi officials. Some counter-terrorist officials suggest that violence could spike ahead of the constitution's completion and threaten a timely vote.
But not everyone agrees that keeping to the timetable will affect the violence.
"There is no evidence to back that up," said Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former consultant with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led interim government in Iraq before June 28, 2004.
"In an ideal world, they would meet the deadline, but I'm not prone to the whole apocalyptic vision if they don't," he said.
Rubin thinks the Iraqi committee will meet the deadline, mostly because they will kick the issues of religion and federalism "down the road" for future interpretations.
Brown agreed the constitution should be a "bare bones statement of principles" and not be conflated with what should be developed as a legal code.
On the other hand, Brown said a danger lurks by deferring the touchy subjects of religion and federalism to the legislature since different power brokers in parliament will certainly push their own interpretations anyway.
"If you paper it over, then all sides are going to run with their own interpretation," he said.
In the meantime, semi-autonomous areas like Kurdish-dominated Northern Iraq will be emboldened to go their own way in the meantime, Brown said.
"They have only been working for a month and a half. There is an awful lot going on in Iraq right now," he said. "There is a sense that this is happening way too quickly."