The US has eased its opposition to an Islamic Iraqi state to help clinch a deal on a draft constitution before yesterday's deadline.
US diplomats backed religious conservatives who threatened to torpedo talks over the shape of the new Iraq unless Islam was a primary source of law. Secular and liberal groups were dismayed at the move, branding it a betrayal of Washington's promise to advocate equal rights in a free and tolerant society.
Stalemate over the role of Islam, among other issues, meant last week's deadline was extended for a week.
The Bush administration, keen to show the political process is on track, has waded into negotiations and pressured all sides to compromise.
Administration officials have suggested that the number of US troops could be reduced next year if Iraq makes political progress and enough Iraqi troops are trained to take on insurgents. But yesterday, a US general said the army was making "worst case" contingency plans to maintain troops at the current level for another four years.
In an interview with the Associated Press, General Peter Schoomaker said the army had planned troop rotations up to 2009 to ensure enough soldiers would be available. But actual deployments will be decided by commanders in Iraq, if conditions allow, he added.
There are currently 138,000 US troops in Iraq, including 25,000 US Marines. President Bush has repeatedly denied that the US intends to "cut and run," leaving Iraq to the insurgents.
"Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy," the president said yesterday in his weekly radio address.
Conservative Shiites, dominant in the Iraqi government, had clashed with Kurds and other minorities who wanted Islam to be "a" rather than "the" main source of law.
According to Kurdish and Sunni negotiators, the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, proposed that Islam be named "a primary source" and supported a wording which would give clerics authority in civil matters such as divorce, marriage and inheritance.
If approved, critics say that the proposals would erode women's rights and other freedoms enshrined under existing laws.
"We understand the Americans have sided with the Shiites. It's shocking. It doesn't fit with American values," an unnamed Kurdish negotiator told Reuters. "They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state."