If no draft document had been submitted, the National Assembly would have had to consider whether to dissolve the government and hold new parliamentary elections in October. Then, the whole process of trying to write the constitution would have had to begin again.
Any such course would have completely derailed the timeline for electing a first constitutional government by the end of this year -- something U.S. and Iraqi officials regard as essential to weakening the insurgency.
But if presenting the draft document yesterday avoided such difficulties, it in no way solved what continues to be a tense political crisis over what will be the constitution’s final wording.
That is because -- rather than approving the draft -- the National Assembly voted to give party leaders another 72 hours to try to agree on several key disputes the constitutional committee could not resolve.
Kamran al-Karadaghi, spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told RFE/RL that the toughest dispute is over demands from some Shi’a parties for a Shi’a autonomous region.
“The Sunni Arab groups are mainly for a strong central government, but with some decentralized authority to the provinces. But, of course, they all recognize that as far as the Kurdish federalism is concerned, this is a special case. But the problem is federalism in the south," al-Karadaghi said. "And, of course, the Kurds are not opposed to that, but the Sunni Arab groups -- and maybe there are some other groups as well -- say that this means a division of the country. So, it is more a Sunni-Shi’a problem, rather than a problem with the Kurds.”
The federalism standoff has already defied the week’s extension the National Assembly gave after the constitutional committee missed its original deadline of 15 August for completing the charter.
In a sign of the growing tension over the issue, Sunni political leaders said today they regard the presented draft constitution as being pushed through the committee by the majority Shi’a and Kurdish members and as not reflecting Sunni concerns.
Baha Aldin Abdul Qadir, a spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, told RFE/RL that he thought the draft was presented "without taking the opinion of the Sunnis.”
Sunni leaders maintain the draft constitution has to reflect not just a majority position, but a full consensus of the committee members.
Some Sunni leaders have warned that if a constitution is approved without their support, angry Sunnis could take to the streets. One, Saleh Mutlak, told reporters yesterday that “if this constitution passes, the streets will rise up.”
But as the new 72-hour extension begins ticking down, is there still room for a last-minute compromise?
Many observers say one barometer to watch is whether Shi’a supporters of full autonomy are willing to settle instead for a broad delegation of powers now centralized in Baghdad to the regional or local level.
That would address a chief Sunni concern that setting up Shi’a as well as Kurdish autonomous regions could leave Sunni areas economically disadvantaged. The Sunni worry that the autonomous authorities might hoard revenues from Iraq’s oil fields, which are in the south and north of the country but not in the Sunni center.
Qadir says his party hopes for outside pressure that might force a compromise.
“With some pressure from the American and other powers, there will be some negotiations in the next few days, and I think we will reach a compromise on the suspended points,” Qadir said.
Another barometer to watch is whether Shi’a parties themselves increasingly unite or divide over the autonomy issue in the hours ahead.
The demand for Shi’a autonomy surfaced earlier this month when one of the leading Shi’a religious parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- called for uniting all Shi’a-majority areas in southern and central Iraq into a single self-ruled region.
But the idea has been branded “unacceptable” by the spokesman for Ibrahim al-Ja'afari, the Iraqi prime minister. Al-Ja'afari is a key leader of another leading Shi’a religious party, the Islamic Al-Dawah, which is a partner with SCIRI in the Shi’a-led United Iraqi Alliance.
At the same time, supporters of firebrand Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have demonstrated against autonomy. They say it would set back their goal of fostering an Islamic system across Iraq.
Well-informed observers tell RFE/RL that currently some of the Shi’a parties are keeping their options open by supporting autonomy in the closed-door constitutional drafting talks, but taking an undecided or even skeptical position publicly.
But now, as the time for constitutional negotiations runs out, the parties of United Iraqi Alliance – which has the biggest bloc in the National Assembly -- will increasingly have to make tough individual choices.
Will they insist on pressing for autonomy and try to use their dominant position in the National Assembly to push through approval of the draft constitution without Sunni agreement?
Or will they balk at the risk such a strategy presents of seeing Sunni areas reject the document in the nationwide October constitutional referendum?
Their choices will involve weighing the benefits of advancing Shi’a interests after decades of centralized misrule from Baghdad against the costs of keeping the disaffected Sunni community on the margins of Iraq’s new order.
And their answer will have to come by 26 August.