Choosing a moment crucial to the future of Iraq, and amid weeks of explosive violence, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq Sunday, encouraging Iraq's fledgling government to cope with the insurgency and to swiftly draft a new, inclusive constitution.
Ms. Rice arrived as a 55-member Iraqi committee began deliberating on the document that will shape more than any other Iraq's future. The new constitution will codify the role of Islam, the degree of self-rule for ethnic Kurds, and the rights of women.
But depending on the results of those and other fault-line issues, the new constitution could also sow the seeds for future conflict among Iraq's Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups.
"The insurgency is very violent, but you defeat insurgencies not just militarily - you defeat them by having a political alternative that is strong," Rice said. "The Iraqis are now going to have to intensify their efforts to demonstrate that, in fact, the political process is the answer for the Iraqi people."
A draft constitution is meant to be ready by Aug. 15 - a date that most Iraqis expect to slip, given that it took three months of political bickering to form the new government after landmark elections. The constitution is then to be put to a referendum in mid-October, followed by new elections at the end of the year.
The process is being overshadowed by a wave of insurgent attacks that have left more than 430 Iraqis dead since the government was announced little more than two weeks ago. Sunday Iraqi police found 34 bodies - many showing signs of torture and then execution - in three cities; five more were killed by a car bomb that targeted the governor of one province.
In talks with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari, Rice emphasized the importance of sticking to the constitution timeline and ensuring a role in the process for Iraq's Sunni minority, which has been disenfranchised since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The insurgency draws most of its support from extremist Sunnis and former regime elements, working together with foreign militants. Sunnis widely boycotted the Jan. 30 vote, and so are underrepresented in the new National Assembly.
In fact, only 2 of the 55 members of the constitutional committee are Sunnis, though advisory panels give them a non-voting voice. According to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which was approved last year under the auspices of US authorities here, any three provinces (a number which could be mustered by disgruntled Sunnis) can veto the constitution.
"We will find a balance that all Iraqis can support," says Sheikh Homam Baqr Hamoudi, a deputy from the party of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who could be appointed chairman of the constitutional committee. "The TAL mentions that Islam is the basic resource, and we will find a middle solution acceptable to all Iraqis," Sheikh Hamoudi said in an interview.
Hamoudi is also optimistic about the timing, saying, "God willing" the mid-August deadline will be met. "We hope to finish this, because we will work hard writing it," says the cleric. The committee plans to create two subcommittees to study Iraq's old constitution, the experience of other countries, and the TAL.
Many factions, many demands
But even as the constitution writers begin their work, Iraq's multitude of factions are laying down their demands. Many of them expect the final product to rehash the language of the TAL, which spells out that Islam is the "official religion" of Iraq and that its tenets should be "a source of legislation."
The language matters to secular Iraqis, who are concerned that the Shiite majority will try to impose more Islam on their lives than they are willing to accept. Already, women last year protested a proposed Resolution 137, put forward by religious conservatives on the Governing Council, transferring from civil administrators to clerics decisions on marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
This time, groups of the Iraqi Women's Network are gathering to map out their demands. Azhar al-Sheikhly, minister of state for women's affairs and a Sunni, promised members everything from women's training to rural education.
"We're fighting to keep our rights," Ms. Sheikhly said in an interview. "It's a struggle, a struggle, and a struggle."
The women's issue is just one example of the deeply felt passions swirling around the constitution, from concerns about deeper Islamic rule to Kurdish demands for regional autonomy and control of the oil city of Kirkuk - a constant source of friction between Kurds and the central government.
That struggle for women is already evident on the streets, with secular women reporting that they are being forced to wear more conservative clothing. Women attending university are told at the gate that their skirts are too short, or asked why they are wearing jeans. Headscarves are increasingly frequent on national television.
"The pressure comes from Islamic parties like Dawa [Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari's party] and SCIRI, because these parties now control government," says Isra Hassan, a member of the Iraqi Women's Network. "They consider us an agent organization, a terrorist organization. I adore my God, but I don't want pressure on this."
The audience at a women's meeting last Thursday in a Baghdad hotel wore all manner of clothes, from Western style to headscarves and long shawls. Among them was Jumana Ali of the Democratic Culture Organization, who had come from the holy Shiite city of Karbala to the south.
"All the Shia women, regardless of their clothes, want the same rights - they need freedom," says Ms. Ali, who says she must wear a black abaya, or head-to-toe robe, in her hometown. "The religious men are very strong, and we are influenced from this religious system.
"They are winning," says Ali, who wore a Western suit jacket for the women's meeting. "They make our space to work smaller and smaller.... Unfortunately, most women don't know their rights."