By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- At this point, the still-aborning Iraqi constitution looks like it will lead to a splintered federal republic with a weak central core that may eventually be controlled by fundamentalist, veto-wielding mullahs.
That's not good. But an imperfect democracy is probably the price for a quick U.S. exit from Iraq.
As casualties mount, the Bush administration seems to be getting less and less picky about what kind of freedom Iraqis will have.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld served notice during his trip to Baghdad that the United States would brook no delays. Rumsfeld's message always has been that the 138,000 American forces would stay until the job was completed. Talking about when they come home would give an advantage to the enemy.
When murmuring began in Iraq about a 30-day extension of the Aug. 15 deadline for completing action on a draft charter, Rumsfeld said forget it. He reminded the Iraqis bluntly that casualties would continue as long as U.S. forces had to stay on the ground.
Somewhere along the line, the urgency of completing the constitution so Americans and their allies can hand over responsibility for Iraq has ascended to the top of the U.S. assignment sheet.
Defeating the insurgency is still an allied responsibility, but the primary job now is training Iraqis to do it.
The new U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, wasted no time last week in outlining an orderly turnover of military authority when a gradual American troop withdrawal begins next year.
He said a committee already had been formed to work with Iraqis to identify which cities will be turned over first.
For some time, the idea has been under discussion of taking U.S. forces out of the cities altogether and placing them in well-defended bases near Iraq's borders. They would be available to meet challenges from Al-Qaida or other outside threats to Iraqis.
That would be preferable to the current high-profile urban deployment strategy that exposes U.S. forces and nearby civilians to constant suicide attacks. But poor training and lack of Iraqi volunteers have hindered such schemes.
The ever-present threat of civil war hangs over every discussion of an American pullout.
In the tense debate over religious aspects of the constitution, sectarian violence already is becoming an everyday occurrence -- including brutal beheadings such as those in southwest Baghdad on Aug. 1.
Sunnis, including former Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein, made the mistake of boycotting the Iraqi elections and a few tried to scramble back in to help rewrite the constitution. But those hardy souls are literally operating under daily threat of death for a few constitutional crumbs from the Shiites who, with 60 percent to 65 percent of the population, are running the show with very little interest in compromising.
Iraq may be heading toward becoming an Islamic republic, complete with a religious council to review laws for religious purity, much like what happens next door in Iran. American authorities are trying to make the best of it, but the idea of losing U.S. troops in Iraq to create a carbon copy of the "mullahcracy" in Iran takes some major attitude adjustment.
The new constitution also may create a weak central government. What may emerge will be several provinces grouped into three distinct regions -- one under influence of the Sunnis, the second by the Shiites and the third a virtually autonomous region run by the Kurds.
Believe it or not, that is something like what the Pentagon wanted when it began planning for the postwar reconstruction. Before the invasion, an agency set up to administer the country divided Iraq into three administrative regions that roughly followed the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni settlement patterns.
What will keep Iraq from splitting up once the Americans leave is oil. Independence-minded Kurds to the north seem to want control of some northern oil fields as their price for staying in the federation. Others, too, would rather be oil-rich than not.
XJohn Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.