WASHINGTON — Deep divisions in Iraq over the country's draft constitution carry seeds that could destroy the Bush administration's beleaguered strategy for turning the strife-torn country into a unified and stable democracy.
More than any single act, a telephone call Thursday by President Bush to Shiite leader Abdelaziz Hakim to discuss the process underscored how important the document is to the administration. Even if American pressure forces the Iraqis to reach a deal, few who have followed the negotiations expect that it can hold.
Critics of the drafting process now include some Sunni Arabs the administration had been able to count on in the past, such as Ghazi Ajil Yawer, one of Iraq's two vice presidents. Respected Middle East specialists, including some who have advised the administration in Iraq, worry about the way events have unfolded.
I see developments on the constitutional side as potentially disastrous. I think the Bush administration has miscalculated profoundly by trying to get this constitution done by Aug. 15 at any price.
Larry Diamond, a scholar at Stanford University and former senior advisor in the defunct Coalition Provisional Authority
"I see developments on the constitutional side as potentially disastrous," said Larry Diamond, a scholar at Stanford University and former senior advisor in the defunct Coalition Provisional Authority. "I think the Bush administration has miscalculated profoundly by trying to get this constitution done by Aug. 15 at any price."
On Friday, the deadlock continued, with Sunni negotiators unwilling to accept new wording proposed by Shiites, amid increasing indications that the Iraqi electorate will be asked, in a national referendum set for Oct. 15, to approve a document that has not been endorsed by Sunni leaders.
Besides exposing the chasm between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, the fractious debate coincides with a darkening of the American public's mood about the war. Gallup Poll results released Friday show Bush's approval rating fell 5 points in August to 40%, the lowest since he took office. Also worrisome for the administration is that doubts are being voiced more forcefully, although still privately, by some senior military officers, civilian Pentagon officials and U.S. diplomats.
Bush was counting on a consensus on the constitution as a sign of progress to counter growing doubts at home and to further his goal of a stable Iraq.
Instead, Middle East specialists worry that the bitterness of the battle over the constitution could turn wavering Sunnis toward the insurgents and add to sectarian tensions.
The likelihood of violence will only increase, experts fear, if Sunnis attempt to defeat the draft in the referendum.
However the vote plays out, there is a sense among observers that America's endeavor in Iraq is coming to the crunch. The next few months are seen as crucial — a successful referendum in October followed by December elections for a new national government could either begin to turn the tide against the insurgency or so polarize the country that it sinks into civil war.
"It is an extremely fateful time," said Diamond, whose recent book, "Squandered Victory," is critical of the administration's post-invasion handling of Iraq.
Experts said it had always been unlikely that any draft constitution could satisfy all three major groups: Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. The Kurds and the Shiites had more in common, since both favored autonomy for their regions, and both groups wanted greater control over their regions' oil revenue.
In contrast, the Sunnis wanted to retain the old order, with power centered in Baghdad.
"The fundamental fight is a Sunni-Shia one," said Peter W. Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who has been advising Kurdish politicians. "The Sunnis don't want anything for themselves. It's that they don't want the Shiites to have autonomy."
Kurdish leaders, who are non-Arab Sunnis, recognized the importance of Sunni Arabs' participation but were unsure how to involve them given the latter's rejection of regional autonomy, a Kurdish must.
"The state cannot become stable unless the Sunnis are involved," said Barham Salih, Iraq's planning minister and a leading Kurdish politician.
Joost Hiltermann, an expert on the Middle East and the director of the International Crisis Group's Jordan office, said the Kurds were already poised to separate if they sensed that the country was too troubled by sectarian fighting or becoming too dominated by religious factions.
"The Kurds are looking for a way to say: 'We played the game, we acted in good faith, it's not working, we'll set up our separate country,' " Hiltermann said.
The unexpected difficulties of containing the violence in Iraq have already forced U.S. military commanders to lower their goals for quelling the insurgency. They shifted last year to the more modest objective of protecting the evolving political process that would produce the stable, viable Iraqi democracy envisioned by Bush.
But some senior officers and Pentagon officials have said privately that without additional forces or a radical shift in strategy, the American forces may not even be able to accomplish that.
"I think that we don't have very many levers out there to pull in Iraq," said a Pentagon official who was part of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq and who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks.
As the public debate and a nascent antiwar movement gain strength, others say it is time to change the military approach. Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon policymaker who now heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington-based think tank, argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that only a major shift in strategy can give America victory in Iraq. Krepinevich contends there is no alternative to a stepped-up counterinsurgency campaign that would risk additional American casualties and require "an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq."
"There is no strategy that will win this war quickly or cheaply, so you have to balance the cost of [winning] a long, expensive war against the costs of losing it," he said in a telephone interview.
Doubts about the way forward have also prompted a new wave of soul-searching among leading Democrats, some of whom have criticized the conduct of the war, with little effect.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, who has made five trips to Iraq and is the Democratic Party's leading voice on foreign affairs, said he would urge the administration to bring other countries in the region into the political process, as was done in post-Taliban Afghanistan and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, Biden also expressed doubts that Iraq's unity could hold without genuine consensus on a draft constitution. If it does not, he said, the only choice would be to support the Kurds and Shiites and try to prevent Sunni areas from becoming a terrorist haven.
"At this point, we have to choose between bad options: Leave with chaos in our wake or stay and squander more American lives," Biden said. "Without the Sunnis, this is a losing game."
Marshall reported from Washington and Rubin from Vienna. Times staff writers John Hendren and Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.
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