GWEN IFILL: The Iraq constitution. Yesterday, for the second time in a week, Iraqi leaders missed a self-imposed deadline to agree on a new constitution. Speaking to reporters in Idaho today, the president said he remains optimistic.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As Americans watch the constitutional process unfold, as we watch people work to achieve compromise and unity, we have to remember our own history. We had trouble at our own conventions writing the Constitution. It took a lot of work and a lot of interests and the willingness of people to work for the common good. That's what we're seeing in Iraq, and it's a positive development.
We're watching an amazing event unfold: That is the writing of a constitution which guarantees minority rights, women's rights, freedom to worship in a part of the world that had only... in a country that only knew dictatorship. And so, you're seeing people express their opinions and talking about a political process. We just cannot tolerate the status quo. We're at war.
And so, this is a hopeful moment. And you talk about the Sunnis rising up. I mean, the Sunnis have got to make a choice. Do they want to live in a society that's free, or do they want to live in violence? And I suspect most mothers, no matter what their religion may be, will choose a free society so their children can grow up in a peaceful world.
GWEN IFILL: So what happened yesterday in Baghdad? For that, we turn to the president's man in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been intimately involved with the process. I spoke with him from Baghdad earlier today.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us. Last week we had a deadline, Aug. 15, for this constitution. Yesterday we had another deadline for this constitution. And now we are hearing three more days or perhaps longer. Where do things stand tonight?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, of course, a draft has been presented, as you know, to the assembly, and there are three or four issues on which there is not sufficient support among the members of the constitutional commission. By sufficient I mean now that there is a majority support, they would like to get consensus or near consensus, and they don't have that on three issues really, and they are working it. There are meetings going on and there will be meetings going on tomorrow and hopefully by late Thursday, local time, they will have the level of support that they are seeking.
It's very important -- as you know, Iraq is going through a difficult transition -- to get as broad a support as possible to win away from the insurgency the people of western Iraq, mostly Sunni Arab, so it's very important, although I know it's taken longer than people expected, to get a good document that can be a national compact and get broad support across Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: There has been some pessimism expressed today from Iraqis that this three-day extension is long enough. What is your take on that?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, we will have to see. I'm hopeful that the level of support required by the political necessity that I talked about will be achieved in time. There is enough support in terms of the passage of the draft that they have in the assembly already. They don't need that legally. What they are doing is to go for broader level of support because of political considerations, because of the need to build consensus, because of the need to isolate the insurgency from the Sunni population. I don't think there will be any request for further extension. There will be an effort, as I said, a continuing effort to broaden the level of support by reaching some sort of compromise on the three articles that are in dispute and there isn't sufficient support for them.
GWEN IFILL: Before we get to the discussion of those three articles that are in dispute, you're alluding obviously to the objections which have been raised by the Sunnis, who are not happy with the draft constitution as it was presented. So what -- are you willing on Thursday, if they're still not in agreement, to go ahead and vote this out without Sunni participation?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, that's a decision obviously for the Iraqis to make. We are obviously urging them on behalf of the United States to get as broad a support as possible and to work as hard as possible and for us to help them as much as we can to get more support from the Sunni community. It's a political necessity; it's a military necessity; and it's good for the stability of Iraq. Iraq is made up of three big communities: The Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds.
And there is a need for a national compact about the future of Iraq between these three communities. And every effort has to be made to reach as broad an agreement by as many of the people of Iraq from all of these communities as possible.
GWEN IFILL: One Sunni negotiator who's part of this was quoted in the New York Times today as saying if the constitution passes, we assume he meant without Sunni support, the streets will rise up. Do you think a constitution enacted without Sunni support might give new life to the insurgency?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, certainly it would not be helpful in terms of the effort to isolate extremists, which is our strategy. We want a national compact, as I said before, to isolate the insurgency, and then to use military power in a very deliberate fashion to deal with the extremist elements. We cannot defeat the insurgency by military means alone. We need to have a political, a military, an economic, an intelligence strategy that's integrated. And it would be a significant problem if there isn't Sunni support for the constitution. And, therefore, we'll encourage the Iraqis; they understand this as well - that we need to do everything that can be done to reach out, to broaden the level of support to as much as possible.
But the Sunnis also need to be reasonable in their demands; they can't expect to have everything their way. The constitution is written for all of Iraq, not for any single community. We are urging the Shias and the Kurds to exercise restraint in terms of not wanting everything for themselves, but the same applies obviously to the Sunnis as well.
GWEN IFILL: The president said, when asked about some of these criticisms coming from Sunni leaders, that that's just one person who is speaking. You're in the room. How widespread is the -- are the heels dug in among Sunni negotiators that this is not an acceptable document?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, of course, there is bargaining going on. And, as you know, in any bargaining, there is a bit of posturing that also goes on. I would not take everything that the people who are involved in the negotiations are saying completely seriously. But the issue of Sunni participation in the process is a serious issue; it's an important issue. And I think there is a need for statesmanship and compromise by all sides.
I have to tell you, however, that compromise does not come easy in this part of the world, that the word "compromise" does not exist in the Arabic language, and when I served in Afghanistan, the same problem existed there as well. The word "compromise" did not exist in the Afghan language as well. But, look, you can't build a country without compromising when you are made up of different communities, with different ideas about what should be done with regard to the future of a country.
So, we are going to do what we can to be a bridge to facilitate, to help, to cajole, to urge. But I'm counting on the wisdom of the Iraqi leaders, on the need of the Iraqi people who are suffering a great deal, who are getting killed every day. Of course, we have a vital interest here; we have young men and women sacrificing their lives to help the Iraqis. We have invested a lot of treasure here; we are investing even more down the road.
So, you know, it serves all our interest, first the Iraqi interest for the leaders to rise above their immediate interest or partial interest or regional interest or ethnic interest or sectarian interest to think about the nation. Their people need this compromise, and we will do what we can to help them.
GWEN IFILL: You say there are three or four outstanding issues, to paraphrase what you suggested, that have to be worked out between now and Thursday at midnight your time. If the word "compromise" doesn't exist, how do you get to an agreement on those issues - and first of all, what are they?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, first there is the issue of federalism. The Kurds of Iraq, as you know, have been outside the effective control of the central government in Iraq since the Gulf War for Kuwait, over twelve, thirteen, fourteen years ago. For them to come back and rejoin Iraq, they want to be out of their free will part of Iraq but part of a federal Iraq, a democratic Iraq, a pluralistic Iraq, and because of that fact, that the Kurds want to be federal, some of the political forces that are dominant in the southern part of Iraq, which is largely Shia, they think their region should also have the right to form a federal union.
The Sunnis, who have been politically dominant here for a long time until the end of Saddam's regime, are opposed to federalism; they believe in a unitary state, and over the past several weeks they have moved towards accepting federalism for the Kurdish area, but they are still objecting to the formation of federal units in the South.
There is conversation going on about a possible compromise that will necessitate perhaps the assembly, the next assembly, to put some rules and procedures together for how new federal units of the Kurdish area could be formed and perhaps to put a limit as to how many provinces could get together to form a single unit. This is very much in discussions and negotiations going on but that's one significant issue.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, another issue - I think you're going in the same direction - is the issue of the role of Islam in the constitution. I see the draft says Islam is "a" main source for legislation, no longer "the" main source for legislation. Is that an acceptable piece of language?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Right. On that there is a consensus that has developed. That is not a contentious issue among the Iraqis. Islam has been accepted as the official religion of the state, a main source of legislation. But at the same time, besides the laws not being against the provisions of Islam, laws cannot be against the principles of democracy; laws cannot be against the human rights that have been enshrined in the constitution.
So there are three tests against any new law: Islam, democracy, and human rights. And this is a kind of a synthesis between Iraqi traditions, Islam, and universal principles of democracy and human rights. And that's the only compromise, the only synthesis that was possible, given Iraq, given the reality of the forces that are present here.
And we had to do the same thing in Afghanistan; I was involved, as you know, as the ambassador there when the Afghans were putting a constitution together.
GWEN IFILL: What about women's rights?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think women in Iraq and women around the world and the women in the United States will be very pleased with what they will see in the draft constitution. One, as in the Afghan constitution, this constitution requires that 25 percent of the assembly seats will be made up of women. As you know, that's more than what we have in the United States at the present time.
In addition, there is the equality between men and women that's recognized in this constitution. The constitution disallows any kind of discrimination based on gender, on color, on ethnicity, on religion, and so forth.
The constitution also recognizes the freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscious; it recognizes the rights of people of different religions to believe what they believe and to practice their religion, all of these issues, as well as political freedoms that the constitution enshrines should be and I'm sure is of importance to women in Iraq and around the world.
GWEN IFILL: The president and you and Secretary Rumsfeld and others have stressed this week how difficult a process this has been. If for some reason there still is no agreement by Thursday night or at any point in the near future on what this constitution should be, will it be possible for the United States to even begin to think about drawing down forces anytime in the foreseeable future?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, a good constitution, broadly supported, is a military necessity as well, therefore, it is very important - and that's what I'm focused on, rather than what if the constitution is not supported broadly.
We will do everything we can that there is a good constitution that is broadly accepted.
GWEN IFILL: Does that goal include setting the stage for the eventual withdrawal or drawdown of U.S. forces?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Oh, yes, of course, we want to build up Iraqi forces, weaken the insurgency, build up Iraqi institutions, political, economic, security, and draw down U.S. forces, change the mix of forces as the circumstances warrant.
Equally important is the policies of the neighboring states. It is important that Syria and Iran become part of the solution to Iraq's problems, helping a neighbor that's going through a difficult transition to stand on its own feet, rather than to take advantage of the difficulties of Iraq at the present time or add fuel to the fire, and we'll hold them accountable; we'll do what we can. Washington is thinking about ways and means to incentivize these two countries to follow a more constructive approach to Iraq, rather than their current approaches.
GWEN IFILL: U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you so much for joining us.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: It's nice to be with you. Thank you.