WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has a lot riding on the outcome of two deadlines that loom in the volatile Middle East: the historic withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip (search) and the drafting of a constitution for an independent Iraq.
In both cases, the United States has invested time and a great deal of money to promote democracy and peace — often elusive commodities in the Middle East. In the case of Iraq, the United States has also spent blood. In both cases, success might mean a reduction in terrorist violence while failure could damage both Middle East stability and U.S. credibility.
For the Bush administration, each situation presents an opportunity to demonstrate to the Middle East that political participation can pay off, said retired Col. P.J. Crowley, a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration and now a foreign policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.
"In the battle for hearts and minds, you've got to be able to point to something positive," Crowley said.
One imponderable is the effect, if any, of the changing power equation in Saudi Arabia, where King Fahd (search) died Monday after several years of illness. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, who had been effectively in charge of the kingdom since 1995.
Separately, August could mark a new chapter in the longrunning political maneuverings over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea (search) and Iran.
North Korea returned to six-way international talks last week, after a year's absence, and the United States has set no deadline to complete the negotiations.
Iran is to resume discussions with European diplomats in August, after the installation of a new hardline president, over what it insists is a peaceful nuclear program. The United States contends that Iran is using a civilian nuclear power program as cover to develop weapons.
A draft Iraqi constitution is due Aug 15. The document, meant to represent the interests of all Iraq's squabbling factions, is the first step in a six-month political process that the United States sees as crucial to its own exit from the country after more than two years of war.
Framers of the constitution said Sunday, however, they needed more time to finish the document. That uncertainly could upset the political momentum on which Washington has staked its plan to reduce troop levels next year.
Israel plans to begin pulling out troops and relocating 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza on Aug. 17. The withdrawal will take about six weeks. It will leave Gaza, an impoverished patch of land on the Mediterranean, in Palestinian hands after 38 years of Israeli control.
The United States has more short-term political capital invested in getting the constitution done on time than it does in seeing the Gaza pullout come off without delay or major bloodshed, analysts said.
Gaza, if all goes well, represents a building block toward an eventual Middle East peace deal that probably will not be realized while Bush is in office.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made three trips to Israel and the West Bank this year, and pushed harder each time for cooperation and security during the Gaza pullout.
The administration placed a security coordinator on the ground months ago, and Rice's deputy for the Middle East is shuttling among Washington, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
U.S. officials are especially eager to maintain political momentum in Iraq, hoping that a broad-based government can lure Sunni Arabs guerrillas away from the insurgency.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Baghdad to urge the Iraqis to finish the draft charter on time. "People are simply going to have to recognize that (in) any constitutional drafting process, compromise is necessary. It's important. It's understandable. It's the way democratic systems work," he said.
Progress toward the constitution has come intermittently, but minority Sunni Arabs have not boycotted. On Friday, key members of the committee writing the charter said they had almost finished the draft and expected to submit it to parliament by Sunday.
But with no sign of compromise on outstanding issues, committee chairman Humam Hammoudi said before a meeting Sunday that he would recommend the group ask for a 30-day extension. After the meeting, one framer, Bahaa al-Araji, said the recommendation had been accepted.
Al-Araji said Kurdish delegates wanted a six-month delay — the maximum amount under the interim constitution — but that Shiites and Sunni Arabs would accept no more than 30 days.
As word of a possible extension spread, however, U.S. officials began pressuring the Iraqis to stand fast by the timetable, Iraqi officials said.
If parliament ratifies the charter, it will be submitted to a public referendum two months later.