IRAQ STANDS less than 10 days away from a momentous vote on a new constitution, the first of a series of events that in the next several months will make or break the U.S.-backed attempt to unite the country under a new political system. A successful exit for U.S. troops, or a deepening military quagmire, hangs in the balance. Yet serious discussion of the Iraqi political process in Washington seems to have faded to a whisper. President Bush answered only one question about Iraq during a 55-minute news conference Tuesday; in doing so, he again wrongly described the principal U.S. challenges as defeating Islamic terrorists and training Iraqi forces. Many administration critics, too, largely ignore the issues surrounding the constitutional referendum. Since they insist on portraying Iraq as an irretrievable disaster and a replay of Vietnam, they have little incentive to focus on the actual situation.
Yet there are urgent decisions to be made about the political process and the American role in it. Senior U.S. military officers understand this; in the past week, the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, was among several who said that a political accord among Iraq's various ethnic and religious communities is critical in determining whether the war winds down or grows far worse. Moreover, the generals are willing to say what the civilians in Washington have not: that right now the process is headed in the wrong direction. "We've looked for the constitution to be a national compact," Gen. Casey said, "and the perception now is that it's not."
There are many flaws in the proposed constitution, but the most serious is its facilitation of a de facto partition of Iraq into several mini-states. Minority Kurds plan to preserve their existing statelet in northern Iraq and add to it the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk and the oil fields nearby. Shiite leaders have meanwhile announced plans for a nine-province "region" in southern Iraq that, with its own constitution, courts and security forces -- and control of some of the world's largest oil fields -- would very likely become an Islamic republic closely linked to Iran. Left behind by these schemes would be the residents of Baghdad; Iraqis around the country who hoped for a secular and democratic state; and the minority Sunni population, which ruled the country under Saddam Hussein and constitutes the bulk of the armed insurgency. In such an Iraq, even moderate Sunnis would have an enduring source of grievance. Worse, they could be convinced by the upcoming referendum that seeking redress by political means is useless: It now seems likely that Sunnis will vote overwhelmingly against the constitution, and that it nevertheless will be ratified by Shiite and Kurdish votes. If, against the odds, the constitution is voted down, Shiites and Kurds could turn to violence.
Gen. Casey is not the only U.S. official who sees this potential disaster-in-the-making. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, has been working tirelessly for weeks to broker a compromise among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- one that would necessarily involve curtailing Shiite ambitions under the banner of "federalism." But Mr. Khalilzad has achieved no breakthrough. It can't help his cause that in speaking publicly about Iraq, Mr. Bush never mentions this crucial diplomacy or hints that there might be trouble if it fails. He and other senior officials seemingly can't permit themselves to publicly acknowledge the obvious: that if there is no political accord in the coming weeks, the U.S. objective of creating a democratic Iraq, or even of preserving Iraq as a single state, could be lost. Yet Iraq's prospects would be better if its leaders heard the American president clearly describe the likely consequences of their current strategies. Iraq is risking a civil war, and Americans are not likely to support the further sacrifice of lives in defense of a Shiite Islamic republic, or a rump state of Kurdistan.