AS IRAQ MOVES toward a referendum on its new constitution just three weeks from now, many of its senior politicians readily concede that the charter is seriously flawed, and that its approval may worsen rather than alleviate the relentless violence. Leaders of neighboring Arab states and some Bush administration officials seem to share this view. Yet none of these officials or leaders has been willing or able to stop the political process from going forward. Some, like Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speak hopefully of fixing the constitution by adding an annex between now and Oct. 15. Others, including senior Bush administration officials, more realistically look past the referendum to parliamentary elections at the end of the year. These, they hope, will produce a different and more representative group of Iraqis able to settle the many conflicts that the constitution leaves unresolved.
Faced with sinking domestic support, the Bush administration seems driven by an unwise zeal to produce visible results in Iraq -- such as a ratified constitution -- however problematic they may be. At best, administration policymakers are calculating that moving forward with the referendum offers better odds of eventual success than trying to stop and start over. Yet, judging from what even supportive Iraqis are saying, the risk is very great that the constitutional process will either tip Iraq decisively toward civil war or produce a state far from the goal of a tolerant democracy for which nearly 2,000 Americans have given their lives.
The fundamental source of trouble is not the Islamic extremists President Bush usually speaks about; nor is it the presence of American soldiers. If the protesters visiting Washington this weekend succeeded in forcing a quick U.S. troop withdrawal, the bloodshed in Iraq, and the damage to the United States, would grow far worse. That is because the real problem is the absence of an agreement about Iraq's future between the majority Shiite and Kurd communities and the minority Sunnis, who ruled the country from the time of its establishment until the fall of Saddam Hussein. That disconnect is expressed in the overwhelming rejection by Sunni leaders of the constitutional draft.
In one hopeful sign, the Sunnis are working hard to register their voters and produce a massive turnout in the referendum, a striking contrast to their boycott of January's elections. But the most probable outcome of that democratic participation is that Sunnis will vote overwhelmingly against the constitution -- and it nevertheless will be ratified by the votes of Shiites and Kurds. Even officials of the current, Shiite-led government fear that such a result would cause moderate Sunnis to reject the nascent political system and more fully embrace the armed insurgency, which is led not by foreign Islamists such as Abu Musab Zarqawi but by Iraqi Sunni nationalists.
Defenders of the constitution argue that many Sunni leaders are pro-Hussein diehards who wouldn't accept any democratic system in Iraq and who don't represent most Sunnis. That's probably true, but it's equally true that some Sunni complaints about the constitution are legitimate. Though the details of implementation were postponed, the current draft would allow the Shiites, who already control the national government, to create their own ministate in southern Iraq, which very likely would be ruled by clerics and Islamic law and would closely ally itself with neighboring Iran. It would have its own armed forces and control Iraq's biggest oil fields. The Kurds would have their own ministate in northern Iraq and would probably take over the city of Kirkuk and its oil production. This radical form of "federalism" not only would be ruinous to the Sunni community, as well as the mixed population of Baghdad: It would be threatening and even destabilizing for all of Iraq's neighbors except Iran. It would produce an Iraq that the United States would have no interest in defending.
The only way for Iraq to avoid catastrophe is a political accord among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis, one that can be based only on the preservation of Iraq as a federal but unified state in which resources and political power are fairly shared and human rights protected. The Bush administration, and Iraqi leaders themselves, ought to be focused on striking that national compromise rather than on prematurely enshrining pieces of paper or adhering to deadlines that were set arbitrarily 18 months ago. The longer the delay in achieving real compromise, the greater the risk that Iraqis will be locked into a march toward ruinous civil war, whether the political calendar is followed or not. Many important Iraqi leaders, among them Shiites and Kurds, understand what is needed. The Bush administration must catalyze them into action. If it can do so in the next three weeks, the odds that it can rescue the American mission in Iraq will be much better.