For the Bush administration, the apparent approval of Iraq's constitution is less of a victory than yet another chance to possibly fashion a political solution that does not result in the bloody division of Iraq.
Publicly, administration officials hailed the result but privately some officials acknowledged that the road ahead is still very difficult, especially because Sunni Arab voters appeared to have rejected the constitution by wide margins. As one official put it, every time the administration appears on the edge of a precipice, it manages to cobble together a result that allows it to move on to the next precipice.
The referendum's defeat would have been disastrous for the administration, and U.S. officials worked strenuously in recent weeks to avert that possibility. Some officials pointed to the relatively low level of violence — achieved during a three-day lockdown of the country — as an especially positive sign.
Even so, the constitution appears to have been soundly rejected in two Sunni provinces, indicating deep opposition to the document in the areas most crucial to ending the insurgency and binding Iraq's political wounds.
Charter ‘an enormous fiasco’?
"This thing is an enormous fiasco," said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan historian and a specialist on Shiite Islam. He said having such a solid bloc in opposition to the constitution "really undermines its legitimacy, and this result guarantees the guerrilla war will go on."
Success in Iraq — still elusive 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion — is critical to President Bush's hopes to provide a democratic anchor in a region long dominated by autocratic governments. But recent polls show a majority of Americans have soured on the invasion, a key factor in the president's low approval ratings.
Now, the White House's attention will turn to the December elections to replace the current interim government and elect a new National Assembly. Bush administration officials have argued that Saturday's vote, with increased participation by Sunni Arabs, will draw them into the political process and boost their representation in the Iraqi parliament.
What the referendum "will certainly help to do is to broaden the base of the political process, those who are casting their lot with the political process, which means those who are either sitting on the fence or are supportive somehow of the violence will diminish," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in London. "Ultimately, insurgencies have to be defeated politically. You defeat them by sapping them of their political support and increasingly Iraqis are throwing their support behind the political process, not behind the violence."
Stage set for greater representation
In the December election, provinces will receive proportional representation so even a low turnout in Sunni provinces will still result in more Sunni Arabs being sent to the legislature. In the January elections for the interim parliament, Sunni representation was especially low because most Sunnis boycotted the elections while Kurds largely voted for a Kurdish coalition and Shiites backed a coalition of Shiite Islamist parties.
A last-minute deal last week on the constitution — allowing it to be amended in the next year, rather than eight years as originally anticipated — is also designed to encourage Sunni Arabs to become more involved and reject the insurgency. The constitution was largely drafted to reflect the interests of the Kurdish and Shiite groups that dominate the assembly, including carving out distinct ethnically based territories with greater control over oil wealth.
But experts said that, even so, Sunni Arabs will remain a minority in the unicameral body and country with 60 percent of the population adherents of the Shiite Muslim faith. Some said that Saturday's result — demonstrating anew that Sunni Arab concerns will be outvoted — could actually do little to encourage the Sunnis.
‘Not a joyful vote’
"The fundamental problem is this is not a consensus constitution, and one part of the country has massively rejected it," said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former adviser to the U.S.-led Iraqi provisional government. "This was not a joyful vote. It was a pragmatic vote to continue the process."
Diamond credited the Bush administration, especially U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, with recognizing the problem and working hard to bring the Sunnis into the process. He said that the Sunnis realize they "shot themselves in the foot" by boycotting the January elections. Now, he said, the administration should begin intense informal mediation to narrow differences between ethnic groups before the election.
Anthony H. Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the referendum "really doesn't finish anything," but now there is limited time for cohesive political tickets to be formed unless they are based on sect, ethnicity or if people are for or against the constitution.
Beginning or end of Sunni involvement?
Martin S. Indyk, a former Clinton administration official who directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the administration's scenario of greater Sunni participation is plausible. But he said it is also plausible that the Sunnis will conclude that because they failed to block the constitution, the political process is stacked against them.
Indyk said the Kurds and Shiites could continue to maneuver to use the political process to protect their interests, and thus the Sunnis will forever find themselves receiving the bad end of the bargain. "We could be fooling ourselves," he said. "If they [Shiites and Kurds] in fact engage in the process in order to destroy it, the administration theory could be very wrong."
Indyk said it was critical for the administration to restrain that sort of power grab by the Kurds and Shiites and demonstrate to the Sunnis that the constitution can be amended to protect their interests.
But Cole said the Bush administration increasingly has little influence over the political turmoil in Iraq. "The whole thing is out of their hands," he said. "The Bush administration is pretty helpless in Iraq."
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report from London.