The wreck ahead

July 29, 2005

THE WAN good news in Iraq is that the Shiite politicians who control the panel writing a new constitution have backed down, a little, from their plan to make women second-class citizens. Now they're kicking around an idea that would, in essence, let each family decide for itself, based on its sectarian affiliation, how deeply to push its female members into the background. What could be more democratic than that?

In a way, this particular episode exemplifies the fundamental problem of Iraq's constitution-writing project. In just over two weeks, the National Assembly is to approve a new charter for the country, which would then go before the voters in the fall. But there's a very real danger that the document that finally emerges will do more to clarify differences than resolve them.

The majority Shiite community, the prickly Kurds and the once dominant Sunnis have starkly different expectations on issues running from federalism to women's rights to the degree and character of the new government's identification with Islam. Reports suggest that the new constitution, when it does emerge, will largely try to paper over their differences, leaving each group wary and mistrustful of the others.

The background noise to all this, of course, comes from the insurgents' bombs going off every day. The stepped-up pace of ambushes and suicide bombings has killed hundreds of Iraqis this month. A U.S. Army report found that ill-trained Iraqi police officers were being thrown into the front lines like so much cannon fodder. It also said the likelihood that insurgents have infiltrated the police is very high.

At the same time, it is also clear that Iran is strengthening its ties to the Shiite leadership and redoubling its influence in Baghdad. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Shiites' tolerance of the mostly Sunni insurgency has about run out. More militias are being set up, amid more calls for active self-defense. Sunni politicians, in turn, have complained about secretive Shiite death squads.

When the constitution is put up for a referendum, the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds will each have the power to reject it, because the voting will be organized by region. That will tend not to foster compromise, as might be expected, but to strengthen ethnic or sectarian identification. The process is more apt to increase violence than reduce it.

The likelihood, in other words, that U.S. troops will start coming home next spring, as predicted Wednesday by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., is small. He himself acknowledged that if the security situation does not improve, all bets are off. Similarly, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said he wants American troops out as soon as possible - but that was chiefly rhetorical. His government would be lost without U.S. firepower.

It could happen that Iraqis of every description decide to give the constitution a try. It seems likely that Washington, which tried to influence the last elections under the table (but failed), will try again. At best, Iraqis will be at each other's throats but not killing each other. That's the rosy view. The American invasion of Iraq let loose an avalanche, or set up a train wreck, or started a chain reaction - choose your metaphor - and the danger is that it will end with a bitter and intractable sectarian bloodletting.

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