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US Downplays Iraq Constitution Delay, Hails Progress Made

The United States Monday downplayed news that Iraqi leaders have missed their August 15 deadline for drafting a constitution and gotten a week's extension. Senior administration officials hailed the progress made and expressed confidence democracy in Iraq remains on track.

The Bush administration had pressed hard for Iraqi politicians to complete the draft constitution on time, considering it a key to defusing the insurgency and setting the country on a course to full democracy and self-dependence.

But top U.S. officials are taking the week's delay in stride, emphasizing progress made by the constitution drafters and voicing confidence the effort will succeed.

President Bush set the tone in a written statement from his home in Crawford, Texas, applauding what he termed the heroic efforts of the Iraqi negotiators thus far, and wishing them well as they complete the constitution-drafting process.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, called an unusual late-afternoon news conference to say that despite the delay the democratic process is working in Iraq and that she is confident the constitution will be finished to allow elections for a permanent government at the end of the year.

Ms. Rice welcomed the fact the Iraqi leadership had sought the one-week extension rather than dissolving parliament and calling new elections, an option that many analysts feared would worsen instability:

"I think that it is a very good sign that when it came to it today, when they as responsible officials, responsible elected officials, believed that they needed a little more time, that they availed themselves of the vehicle that was there, to go to the National Assembly, ask for that time," Ms. Rice says. "President Talibani said we've made substantial progress, we'd like to have a little more time. That's the way that this process is working, it's working in an orderly fashion. And I think the Iraqis have a lot to be proud of. They've got a lot of work to do. But this is really democracy at work, in Iraq."

Ms. Rice expressed satisfaction that Iraq's Sunni Muslims seem to be very much a part of the drafting process.

She also said it was not surprising that Iraqi Kurds are pressing for a large measure of autonomy, but also said the various constituent groups will have to be able to compromise if the process is to succeed.

Under questioning the secretary also made clear the continuing U.S. interest in a constitutional outcome that gives Iraq women a full measure of political rights:

"We've been very clear that a modern Iraq will be an Iraq in which women are recognized as full and equal citizens and I have every confidence that that is how Iraqis feel," Ms. Rice says. "And the important phrasing in the constitution, how that will be represented, of course they're going to continue to work on. But the United States has been very clear about the importance of womens' rights."

The Secretary of State, who has been in frequent touch with the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, on the constitution-writing process, said she and the U.S. envoy remained ready to assist if needed.

But she repeatedly stressed it is an Iraqi process, and a historic moment for the Iraqi people to produce what she said will be the most important document in the history of the new Iraq.