BAGHDAD — In buildings with windows crisscrossed by duct tape to protect against flying glass, Iraq's would-be founding fathers are hunkered down seeking to draft a constitution. With nine weeks remaining before their deadline, they are only now getting started on the historic document meant to unify a fractious country.
The 55 politicians, elected just four months ago, face a tricky task. Go too slow and political momentum may be lost. Go too fast and risk a flawed constitution -- or worse, civil war.
So far, Sunni Muslim Arabs have no meaningful representation on the committee charged with drafting the document, although Shiite Muslim and Kurdish political and tribal leaders have promised a solution to that sensitive issue as early as Thursday.
Many observers warn that rushing the extraordinary document could irrevocably damage relations among Iraqis, raising the specter of full-blown sectarian conflict. U.S. officials, looking for an exit strategy, are urging lawmakers to hurry up and get it done by the Aug. 15 due date.
"The stakes are very high," said South African lawyer Nicholas "Fink" Haysom of the United Nations Constitutional Support Unit, which is following negotiations and providing technical assistance to the Iraqis.
Committee members are working against a backdrop of death threats, assassinations and suicide attacks. They also are inherently suspicious of one another, divided as they are by ethnicity, religion and language.
Now they have to map out how power will be divided between Baghdad and the provinces. They have to draw sensitive geographic boundaries. But foremost, they have to address such fundamental issues as the role of religion, human rights and the division of resources in a constitution that will govern relations not only among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds but between neighbors and husbands and wives.
"With very hard questions, you don't make hard decisions until you're right up on deadline," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said recently. "We think it's possible to get it done."
The toughest issues appear to be the political inclusion of Sunni Arabs, who as a group are suspicious and marginalized; the role of religion in Iraqi law; and control of oil-rich Al Tamim and other provinces.
"The critical issues are political cans kicked down the road," said Wayne White, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The assumption is that the further along the political process, the easier it becomes. My feeling is the opposite."
Beyond drafting the constitution, the committee must educate a traumatized populace about the implications of it. After the document's completion, it is scheduled to be put to a public vote in mid-October.
Already, dreamy government-produced TV ads about a peaceful future with a permanent constitution run on local channels. In the mosques, clerics frequently talk about the importance of the constitution. Some religious and social organizations have begun grass-roots campaigns to tell Iraqis that to attain their independence, they must realize their common identity in the constitution.
But town hall meetings and other large public gatherings will be a challenge to pull off in some areas, especially those dominated by Sunnis. Since the Cabinet was formed April 28, insurgents have violently targeted civilians, often hitting large crowds.
While acknowledging the political and diplomatic hurdles ahead, many members of the constitutional panel insist they will defy the skeptics and finish drafting the constitution before the deadline.
"Iraqis know it will be a way to provide justice for everybody," said Humam Hamoodi, a Shiite with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hamoodi became committee chairman a few weeks ago and has two deputies, Fuad Masoom, a Kurd, and Adnan Janabi, a Sunni.
Despite disparate starting points, Hamoodi said, all groups are motivated by the same logic: A constitution means independence.
Inside the convention center where the committee works, the corridors of power have tea-stained, threadbare carpets. Clad in expensive Italian suits or regal dishdasha robes, the politicians are surrounded by bodyguards as they hurry to and from their hourlong debates in the fortressed Green Zone.
"It's a difficult task" to collectively create "the agreement that broadly shapes their common destiny," said the U.N.'s Haysom.
One legal provision gives de facto veto power to any of Iraq's three major population groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The proposed constitution fails if two-thirds of the voters in three or more provinces reject it in the planned referendum.
If the document is approved, new elections will be held in December, possibly paving the way for the departure of American troops. If it is rejected, the National Assembly will be dissolved, triggering new elections and rewinding the drafting process back to the beginning.