When Iraqis went to the polls in January in their first free elections in a half century, the show of purple thumbs and ensuing public enthusiasm had swift local and global impact: The insurgency was at least temporarily thrown off base, and Iraq's Sunnis reconsidered their boycott of the process. Outside the country, Arabs in neighboring countries looked on admiringly, while support for the war effort climbed in the United States.
Now, Iraq is taking the next big step in its emergence from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, with anticipated approval of a new constitution. (As of this writing, it was unclear if additional deliberations would push back a Thursday deadline.) But Iraq and its transition may not get the same bounce that they did from the elections, for a number of key reasons:
• A looming Sunni rejection of the constitution, which could mean its demise in an Oct. 15 referendum.
• Fears among women and minorities that the document does not adequately protect their rights.
• Worries that the constitution, which allows for powerful regions, stabs at national unity and opens to door to a breakup.
• Concern that what was intended to be a national public debate on Iraq's future ended up being largely power-brokering by principal Shiite and Kurdish political parties behind closed doors.
"The constitutional process in Iraq has tended away from the social-contract model to the political-agreement model," says Rend Francke, who served as Iraq's first post-Baathist representative to the US and is now executive director of the Iraq Foundation. The resulting "settlement between controlling parties" is "better than anything else that exists in the region," she adds, but it still means that "public participation became limited."
That lack of participation could chill a sense of "ownership" about the constitution among individual Iraqis - and that could make its passage in October more difficult, some experts say.
What becomes crucial now, they add, is how Iraqi officials - as well as the US and the international community - go about educating the public and encouraging a solid turnout for the vote.
The Bush administration is already demonstrating the importance it gives the constitution, with President Bush praising it this week as an "amazing event" that guarantees women's rights and religious freedom. The Pentagon also announced that the US will temporarily bump up the number of US troops in Iraq to increase public security for the vote.
Of course the January elections also took place amid warnings of violence, but that didn't dampen participation. A more measured response to the constitution, some experts say, may reflect how the drafting process has forced hard decisions. "Constitutional processes are messy," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Iraqis' questions range from how much say a woman will have over the affairs of her life - including marriage and property rights - to whether clerics and sharia, or Islamic law, will be used to interpret the constitution.
Another big question is whether Iraq's Shiite south will be able to form a powerful and oil-rich region like the Kurds in the north. The Sunnis fear that creation of such a Shiite region would leave them with the turbulent and oil-deprived middle section.
Secular forces and minority groups also hold a dim view of a federated state because they fear it would be "very vulnerable to Iranian influence and pressure," says Ms. Francke, who just returned to Washington from several weeks in Iraq. Splits are even surfacing within Iraq's majority Shiite population over the question of a southern Shiite region.
The constitution would be defeated - and elections would be called for another assembly to write a new constitution - if two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces vote no. Iraqi and US officials had once assumed that the constitution's approval was virtually assured, given the weight of Shiites and Kurds in the population. But a different picture could emerge, some experts say.
According to some, that may not be the worst result in the long run. "I don't see a huge Sunni turnout spiking this as a wholly bad outcome," says Mr. Alterman of CSIS. "There's a silver lining in that," he adds, "if it finally draws the Sunnis inside the political process."