Whenever he was asked in public last winter about the prospect of delaying Iraq's first election since the fall of Saddam Hussein, President Bush flatly dismissed it. His administration, he insisted, was "very firm" on going forward.
But inside the White House, Bush's team was anything but firm. A powerful debate was raging, officials now acknowledge, among the president's top advisers over postponing the Jan. 30 interim election in hopes of first tamping down the flaring insurgency and bringing disaffected factions to the table.
"There was a good debate in front of the president," recalled national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "It was a close question and if it had gone to consensus, I don't know how it would have come out."
Ultimately, it did not go to a consensus decision but to Bush, who opted to stick with the election, a decision with distinct costs and benefits as the United States labored to build a democratic government in Iraq from the ground up. When U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in June 2004, he left behind a script with hard-and-fast deadlines for drafting a constitution and forming a government, a script that culminates Thursday with another election for a permanent parliament.
The story of the 18-month process that unfolded after Bremer left Baghdad was one of steadfast fidelity to the script, as well as a costly period of U.S. inattention and endless frustrations with squabbling Iraqi leaders, according to a wide array of Bush advisers, Iraqi politicians and others involved in the effort. While Bush refuses to set a timetable for military withdrawal, he has stuck doggedly to the Bremer political timetable despite qualms of his staff, relentless violence on the ground and disaffection of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs.
Bush's deadline democracy managed to propel the process forward and appears on the verge of creating a new government with legitimacy earned at the ballot box. His approach resulted in a constitution often described as more democratic than any in the Arab world. Yet by pushing forward without Sunni acceptance, the Bush team failed to produce the national accord it sought among Iraq's three main groups, leaving a schism that could loom beyond Thursday's election. And the Sunni-powered insurgency that was supposed to be marginalized by an inclusive democracy remains as lethal as ever.
Heartening signs of participation
"The key for a long time in Iraq to stabilization . . . has been to pull in significant elements of Sunnis near the insurgency into the political process," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University scholar who for a short time advised U.S. authorities in Iraq, only to become a scathing critic. The press to meet the Bremer deadlines, starting in January, he said, only fueled the militants. "Much of the violence after that was entrenched or reinforced by the elections when the Sunnis were pressed to the margins."
In private, Bush aides agree there were tradeoffs but found no better alternatives, and they take heart from signs that Sunnis who boycotted the January election plan to participate this week. "Perfect wasn't on offer," a senior administration official said. "It's not that anyone thought it was a great idea, but that was the path we were on. No one had the confidence to think of moving along another path. The biggest fear was that things would get slowed down."
In the end, according to participants, the political process has both succeeded and failed. It produced elections and soon a permanent government, but did not end the war, at least not yet. "I believed -- and I said from the podium -- that as Iraqis became more politically empowered, the insurgency would become politically weakened," said Dan Senor, a top Bremer adviser. "That hasn't happened. The political process has been resilient -- and so has the insurgency."
Reality steps in
The Bremer script was never the administration's first choice. Instead, it was a compromise forced by powerful political realities, especially by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of the majority Shiites who after years of oppression under Hussein's Sunni leadership wanted their own government. It laid out a quick succession of goals starting with the January interim election, followed by a draft constitution in August, a referendum to approve it in October and now this week's vote.
The idea behind it was to put the Iraqis in the lead. And so as soon as Bremer turned over sovereignty in June 2004, the Bush administration made a pivotal decision to take a back seat -- literally.
As the one-man ruler of Iraq, Bremer had alienated many Iraqis with what they saw as an imperial style, and the new U.S. ambassador was determined to take a different tack. Iraqi officials were startled when John D. Negroponte sat in a chair against the wall during meetings. He was the anti-Bremer.
"There was a deliberate hands-offness during Negroponte," said a former State Department official. "We went from blowing hot to blowing cold. . . . Those were his instructions."
Michael Rubin, who worked in Iraq for the U.S. government, said Negroponte served as a necessary transition. "In a multi-course dinner," Rubin said, "he was the sherbet meant to cleanse your palate between courses."
A diplomatic drift, then a void
At the White House, however, there was considerable frustration among aides who felt the ambassador was too passive and seemed to consider himself unaccountable to Washington. Looking back, current and former officials said, Negroponte's eight-month stint marked a period of drift followed by a diplomatic void when he abruptly departed to become the new U.S. intelligence director and was not replaced for four months.
He oversaw the January elections, which proved a symbolically powerful moment with Iraqis waving purple-stained fingers indicating they had voted. As negotiations to name a prime minister stalemated, though, Negroponte left the ornate Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris River and the momentum generated by the election faded. "We stepped back, and back, and then back some more," said a former official. "The thought was good -- we have to now re-gear ourselves down. But then we went too far -- we turned the engine off."
A new interim government was not sworn in until May, three months after the election and six weeks after Negroponte's departure.
"It took the shining moment, where there was so much positive energy, and the negotiations descended into the pettiest infighting," said Les Campbell, the National Democratic Institute's Middle East director, who has made 13 trips to Iraq. "The government that rose from that election never once was able to rise to the hopes generated by that election."
More important was the missed opportunity to capitalize on a Sunni change of heart. In a dramatic shift after the January vote, Sunni groups that had boycotted the election and therefore won only 16 of 275 seats in parliament declared they wanted to help write the constitution. But Shiites and Kurds took until June to add 25 Sunni members and advisers to the constitutional drafting commission -- just two months before the deadline.
As talks opened, Shiite and Kurdish leaders wanted to score the greatest possible gains. "They knew they had the Sunni community at a disadvantage and they decided to forge ahead," Campbell said. "Looking back on it, they may see it as a mistake as it led to a hardening of moderate Sunni attitude."
Another new face
Zalmay Khalilzad finally arrived in Baghdad in July after four months with no U.S. ambassador. If Negroponte was the anti-Bremer, Khalilzad was the anti-Negroponte. Outgoing, charming and prone to wheedle and cajole until he gets what he wants, Khalilzad was never one to sit on a back bench, but the Afghan-born envoy had to get up to speed and found a jumbled situation as constitutional negotiators bogged down.
Under the Bremer timetable, they had until Aug. 15 to forge a compact resolving the most divisive issues in the new Iraq, such as the role of Islam and rights of women. Sunnis wanted the constitution to preserve a strong central state, while Shiites and Kurds were determined to carve out or preserve autonomy in their regions. But the Sunnis had no cohesive organization; Khalilzad would receive a list of demands from one faction, then a contradictory list from another.
As the deadline approached, Bush and his advisers meeting at his Texas ranch once again were consumed with the same debate as in January -- whether to break the schedule to craft a deal that would satisfy the Sunnis.
Bush, who instinctively dismisses doubters and abhors changing course, again stuck to the plan. "We've got to keep the deadline there to force the parties to make the hard decisions to reach compromise," Bush told advisers, according to Hadley.
Bush steps in to mediate
With Khalilzad shuttling between parties, Bush delved into the talks personally, calling Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Hakim. "You've got to agree to some things that the Sunnis need to come into the process," Hadley remembered Bush telling Hakim.
This time the deadline passed without agreement. The interim Iraqi parliament just before midnight amended the transitional law to allow more time. It took two more weeks, but over gallons of tea at late-night sessions, the Shiites and Kurds did reach a deal -- bypassing the Sunni Arabs.
Although the deadline had officially passed and the draft constitution was being printed for voters, Khalilzad pressed the Iraqis to keep negotiating. Under his pressure, they finally cut a deal just three days before the Oct. 15 referendum -- they would hold the vote but put off the disputed issues until a new government formed in 2006.
That defused Sunni opposition enough to let the constitution pass, although most Sunnis still voted against it, exposing the fault lines in the new Iraq. Still, more Sunnis participated than in January, with overall turnout rising from about 8.5 million to some 9.8 million. To keep to the script and preserve the sense of momentum, the Bush administration had finessed the deadlines, punted the hard choices to the future and gambled that the Sunnis would continue to participate.
"The one single worst mistake was the rigid, shortsighted adherence to the August 15 deadline," said Jonathan Morrow of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who advised constitutional drafters. That "had consequences for Sunnis buying into the constitutional text. . . . It's a hopeless situation and it's progressively more difficult to remedy."
Fareed Yaseen, an Iraqi official, disagreed: "I used to think that a slight delay might have been useful. But it turned out what was the most important thing was the political process and adhering to it. . . . To get things done in Iraq, you have to have a deadline. If you push it forward, then nothing gets done."
A vote in Fallujah
In a sign of shifting political winds, the embattled city of Fallujah will be open for voting on Thursday -- with its own Sunnis staffing the polls. In January, few were willing to vote in a city that served as an early bellwether of the insurgency, and election workers had to be imported from elsewhere.
This time, Iraqi and U.S. officials expect a decent turnout. The Association of Muslim Scholars, which called for a boycott in January, now urges followers to vote. Considering the turbulent year, U.S. officials are almost optimistic about the final phase of the Bremer script.
Former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith, a key architect of the war, said the political process has not been perfect but that Bush was right to stick rigorously to the timetable. "That was a calculation," he said. "It involved some risk. It turned out not only not to be a disaster but a great success."
Yet the vote that was supposed to end Iraq's transition will not be the last. The consequence of sticking to the schedule without Sunni agreement will be another year of haggling. The issues that most divide Iraq's factions have been put off until the new government opens a four-month debate on constitutional amendments. If there is agreement, then Iraqis will go to polls again -- part of a compromise that was not part of the Bremer script -- to vote on a revised constitution.
"It remains to be seen whether it works," cautioned Morrow. "We can't assume there will be enthusiasm by the Shiites and Kurdish parties for far-reaching amendments." Without compromise, the danger of civil war deepens.
For all that, some of the administration's toughest critics still see a chance for success. "Despite all the mistakes in our myopic clinging to arbitrary deadlines and our vision of what the political transition and pace should be, and our succession of lost opportunities to broaden the arena, I think we're finally beginning to get it right," said Diamond. "There are some tantalizing signs of a political breakthrough."