Shortly before missing a second deadline in a week for finishing a draft constitution, Iraq's top political leaders executed a legal maneuver to buy more time for negotiations without explicitly calling it another delay.
At about 11:50 p.m. Hajim al-Hassani, the chairman of Iraq's parliament, told Iraqi lawmakers at a hastily convened session that a draft constitution was ready. But then he explained there were three outstanding constitutional issues that will hopefully be resolved in the next three days. No drafts were handed either to legislators or journalists.
This appeared to be an attempt to fulfill rules set last week that required a draft be submitted to parliament by midnight Monday by taking advantage of the semantic ambiguity of the word "submitted" and avoiding the embarrassment of a further official delay.
But delay - a short one to be sure - was once again the outcome of marathon negotiations, reflecting the deep divide between Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds about the fundamental structure of the state.
"They have met the legal requirement,'' US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview with CNN, acknowledging this was an effective delay. He explained that "on a number of issues they don't have consensus or near consensus yet so its understandable they would take a few more days."
Mr. Khalilzad has in many ways been at the center of Iraq's constitutional storm in recent weeks. He has had to balance the drive to push a draft through quickly - something the Bush administration wants - with the recognition that if a constitution is completed without buy-in from Iraq's Sunni Arabs it won't have a chance of fulfilling its primary goal: ending the war.
"If they make the deadline because the Shiites and Kurds essentially rammed a draft through over Sunni Arab objections, there will be hell to pay,'' Wayne White, who was the principal Iraq analyst for the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until his retirement earlier this year, warned shortly before the delay was announced.
For the past few days, Iraq's Sunni Arab political leaders have complained they were being ignored by Kurdish and Shiite negotiators, and that they were not going to agree to a constitution on schedule, even as Kurds and Shiites insisted that a draft would be submitted on time, with or without Sunni support.
The situation has put Khalilzad and the US in a strange role in the new Iraq: protectors, for now at least, of Sunni interests.
"Zalmay is the boss,'' said Saleh Mutlak, a leading Sunni member of the drafting committee, before tonight's delay. "He's played a very good role slowing the other parties down, in talking to those who are asking for too much."
The US envoy and Iraq's Sunni Arab leadership might seem strange bedfellows. The Sunnis continue to refer to the country's Sunni-led insurgency as the "resistance" and often view the US project here as determined to convert them into Iraq's new underclass. After all, the toppling of Saddam Hussein lifted the boot from the necks of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, and ended the dominant status of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Now, forging a consensus that might turn the constitution into a sort of peace pact looks it will take more time.
But both Khalilzad and Shiite leaders indicated tonight that time is running out. Mr. Hassani, a Shiite leader, and Khalilzad, said the elusive quest for consensus will be abandoned at the end of this three-day extension. After that a draft is to be voted on by parliament, where the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted Iraq's January elections, have almost no voice.
Indefinite delay does not look likely. While Iraq's Sunnis would like the interim parliament dissolved and fresh elections held - in which they expect to win more seats - before a constitution is written, both Shiites and Kurd's are chomping at the bit.
Iraq's Shiite majority, who control the interim parliament, are eager to take control of a fully sovereign nation. Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who have fought the central government from their northern stronghold for much of the last 80 years, are also eager for a quick result that will create a federal Iraq that guarantees them wide autonomy.
The question of federalism
The main outstanding issue now, according to Hassani, is the question of federalism.
Kurds are eager for their de facto autonomous status in the north to be enshrined in law, and some Shiites also want to create an autonomous region in the country's south. The south and the north of Iraq is where the oil is, while Iraq's Sunnis are concentrated in the oil-free center of the country. They fear both impoverishment, and the eventual breakup of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines if federalism goes ahead.
Now Iraq appears headed for a showdown on Thursday, with Sunni leaders like Mr. Mutlak saying the federalism that the Kurds and Shiites are demanding is a nonstarter.
"Despite the very real possibility that pushing through a draft constitution over Sunni Arab objections could prolong the violence, the Shiites and Kurds are pressing their agendas as if they had no understanding that such dire consequences were a serious possibility,'' says Mr. White.
US diplomats say they are aware of those risks, and Khalilzad's role has been to push them - sometimes cajoling, at other times reminding them of American blood spilled and money spent here - toward common ground. He participated in at least 10 hours of negotiations on Sunday, and was closeted with Iraqi political leaders throughout most of today.
Though in the past the US has insisted that Iraq would become a liberal, democratic model for the Arab world, the US ambassador has been a pragmatist in similar negotiations in the past. While serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, the country of his birth, Khalilzad helped write a constitution that carved out a major role for Islam in that country's laws.
"We are not getting any impression that they are with this side or with that. We feel they are trying to help our side as much as the other side," said Iyad al-Sammarai, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group whose leaders have been arrested by American forces in the past. "I'm sure [the US] has a feeling that if a constitution is approved only by the Shiites and Kurds, they will not get what they want. What they want is stability."
Still, Mr. Sammarai says it's unclear how much US pressure can bring in this process, or if the desire for fast results will lead the US to eventually sign off on a constitution without Sunni backing.
"They're being helpful, but I can't tell if this is all they can do, or if they can do more,'' he says. "I feel Mr. Bush will say we're going ahead and meeting deadlines, so that's progress."
Part of the problem in finding a consensus that could satisfy the Sunnis is the violence among a segment of their own population. Sunni voters before last year's election were intimidated away from the polls by insurgents, and the US military say there are growing attacks on efforts to register voters in Sunni areas now.
While Sunni leaders have said that if a constitution is pushed through, they'll mobilize Sunni voters to reject it, that may be easier said then done.
If two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces reject the constitution in a referendum scheduled for October, it will be scrapped, and Sunnis are dominant in four provinces. But if the resistance prevents Sunnis from going to the polls at all, they won't be able to vote down an unsatisfactory constitution.
"We'll appeal to the resistance to let our people vote,'' says Shakr al-Falluji, a Sunni on the drafting committee. "Hopefully they'll listen."
White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East institute in Washington, says that's a tough proposition.
"It will be very difficult for Sunni Arab negotiators to accept even some of the compromise language currently on the table because agreeing to anything less than something close to their original demands makes them even more likely to be targeted by insurgents for assassination," he says. "The most vicious Sunni Arab insurgents are threatening Sunni Arabs who want to register to vote in the October referendum, making it harder for Sunni Arabs to employ the one political weapon they have left."