By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website
There was a time when the referendum on the Iraqi constitution was expected to be the last step before full elections marked Iraq's emergence as a stable and representative democracy.
There are fears insurgents will strike on referendum day
Now it is seen generally as just another milestone on a long and hard road which optimists still hope will lead to success but which pessimists say has already exacted too high a price and might lead nowhere anyway.
Even if the document is approved, it will leave so much work to be done.
The minority Sunnis, main source of the insurgency, feel left out by the federal structure the constitution would set up and will have to be wooed and won over for the elections in December.
But nobody can woo and win over the fighters who seem to provide an unending source of suicide bombers in their war not only against foreign troops and the current government but also against the Shias whom they regard as apostates.
While anarchy is loosed upon the land, the level of rhetoric that now envelops Iraq is a sign of how difficult things have become.
Both President Bush and a senior al-Qaeda figure Ayman al-Zawahiri have recently elevated Iraq into a major ideological battleground.
Instead of the comfortable words he had once been hoping to utter at this time, Mr Bush has elevated Iraq into an international battleground of good versus evil.
The US president is banking on a secure and successful vote
His critics accuse him of trying to turn a bad job into a noble enterprise. But he is not afraid to attempt to raise American sights above the daily grind of casualties.
In a keynote speech on 6 October, he placed Iraq in the forefront of a global struggle: "In this new century, freedom is once again assaulted by enemies, determined to roll back generations of democratic progress. Once again, we're responding to a global campaign of fear with a global campaign of freedom."
"And once again, we will see freedom's victory," he said.
"Bin Laden has stated the whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries: It's either victory and glory or misery and humiliation.
"The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity, and we must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war on terror," he declared.
It is certainly the case that al-Qaeda, too, sees Iraq as a battleground.
It has never made a secret of its intentions to establish Islamic rule there - and eventually across the Muslim world - in imitation of the Caliphate that ruled from Baghdad from the 8th to the 13th Century before being overrun by the Mongols.
Before that happened, it is likely that Iraq would have broken up. Neither the Shias in the south nor the Kurds in the north have any interest in such an agenda.
US forces have been unable to halt car bombings
An indication of possible al-Qaeda thinking has emerged with the release of a document said by the Americans to have been a letter from a senior al-Qaeda figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zawahiri is quoted as saying that there is a four stage plan - expel the Americans from Iraq, establish an Islamic state there, extend the jihad to secular countries next to Iraq, and then "the clash with Israel".
The document begins: "I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam's history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.
"As for the battles that are going on the far-flung regions of the Islamic world, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia, they are just the groundwork and vanguard for the major battles which have begun in the heart of the Islamic world."
Websites normally used by al-Qaeda in Iraq have denied the authenticity of the alleged letter. It remains therefore something of a mystery at this stage.
Both sides regard the next period leading up the elections in December as vital, though of course the issue will not be decided in this time frame but will go well beyond it.
One suspects that all this high-level language is probably a long way from the pre-occupations of ordinary Iraqis.
But it shows what forces are at work here and the commitment of both the Americans and their allies, and the Islamists to the struggle.