LIKE SO MUCH else that has happened in Iraq since the advent of American power there, the writing of a new constitution didn't go as planned. Unable to meet a U.S.-devised deadline that it has known about for 18 months, the National Assembly decided to wing it last night and gave itself a week-long extension, which is of dubious legality but is probably the least damaging thing the legislature could have done.
President Bush and other American officials had been leaning hard on the Iraqis to keep to the schedule, to come up with any sort of a constitution no matter what it said and no matter what issues it left unaddressed, on the notion that with any delay the whole precarious process could begin to unravel. That might yet happen - the assembly's vote last night to make up new rules as it goes along could be a harbinger of a lot more free-lancing to come.
Nevertheless, there were only two other options available to the legislature, and both were worse.
The committee writing the constitution could have come up with a document that neglected the issues of federalism, the sharing of oil revenues and the role of Islam. But it would have been a sham. It would have almost guaranteed that the suspicious Sunni Arabs would have walked away from politics for good.
The assembly could have followed the letter of the law left to it by the Coalition Provisional Authority and dissolved itself, setting the stage for new elections. This would have been an unmistakeable signal that ballot-box politics in Iraq had failed, and would be a virtual invitation to one or another unsavory alternative.
Iraq's politicians have taken a system bequeathed to them by the American occupiers and are now asserting control over it. Several said last night that their responsibility was to the needs of Iraq and not to the needs of the Bush administration, which, facing more and more discontent at home, was not eager to see deadlines simply go by the boards. Even some of the administration's allies are beginning to wonder what President Bush has gotten the country into as the war just drags along.
But the Iraqi politicians have nearly intractable issues to try to solve in a week's time, and there is going to be either very hard bargaining or no genuine resolution of them. A deal that will bring Sunnis in large numbers into the tent, while keeping Kurds happy, and giving Shiites the kind of religious rule their parties favor, is difficult to imagine.
"This is an Iraqi process, this is not an American process," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said afterward. True enough, but it happens that the fate of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq depends on how that process turns out.