CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush lauded Iraq’s proposed constitution Sunday as a major step forward, while war protesters about a mile away questioned whether it would stop the killing.

“The Iraqi people have once again demonstrated to the world that they are up to the historic challenges before them,” Bush said from a helicopter hangar at his ranch.

Protesters conducting a nearby prayer service noted that a major segment of Iraq’s population, the Sunni Arabs, objects to the constitution, and could block approval in an Oct. 15 referendum.

“You can’t import democracy, and we are learning that very painfully,” said Bob McLane, a retired realtor from Shreveport, La.

The prayer service was conducted at Camp Casey, which protest leader Cindy Sheehan helped organize in honor of her fallen son, who was killed in Iraq.

Sunday’s guests included former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton. He praised Sheehan and others who have maintained an August vigil outside Bush’s ranch, saying they have “become the conscience of this nation.”

Leaders of various faiths led the camp in prayers, while members of the crowd rang bells and called out the names of some of the Americans killed in Iraq.

Bush said a stable democracy in Iraq would promote peace throughout the Middle East, though he acknowledged that insurgents might ratchet up their attacks before the constitutional referendum.

The White House had waited anxiously for the proposed constitution, which was initially scheduled for completion Aug. 15. Bush himself phoned a key Shiite leader last week to urge some sort of compromise with the Sunnis.

In citing objections by the Sunni leadership during his brief statement, Bush said differences of opinion are a natural part of democracy.

“There are strong beliefs among other Sunnis that this constitution is good for all Iraqis and that it adequately reflects compromises suitable to all groups,” Bush said.

Analysts pointed out that Sunnis make up a large part of the insurgency, and aren’t likely to sit still for a constitution that, in their view, gives too much power to the Shiites and Kurds.

David L. Phillips, author of “Losing Iraq: Inside the Post War Reconstruction Fiasco,” said of the proposed constitution: “Even if it’s not rejected, that doesn’t mean it’s viable.”

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