President George Bush's exit strategy from Iraq suffered a severe setback yesterday when Sunni negotiators rejected a new constitution, increasing the chances of outright civil war.
After a series of delays and missed deadlines, the negotiating committee delivered the completed draft constitution to the Iraqi parliament, but the assembly failed to vote on the text after the 15 Sunni members - a minority of the committee - rejected the draft because of continuing disagreement on federalism.
Mr Bush and Tony Blair, in separate statements, urged Iraqis to unite behind the project despite the disagreements. But the prospect of more violence will only make it more difficult for the Americans to withdraw from Iraq.
Mr Bush's approval ratings have sunk to 36 per cent - the lowest level of his presidency. As the number of US troops killed there has risen to 1,900, domestic opposition to the war is on the rise. Mr Bush acknowledged the strength of the opposition from Iraq's Sunni community, which is spearheading the insurgency, when he spoke to reporters at his Texas ranch.
But he stressed that "the political process now advances to another important stage for a new and free Iraq" - a referendum scheduled for mid-October. "This course is going to be difficult," Mr Bush said. "We can expect ... atrocities to increase in the coming months because the enemy knows that its greatest defeat lies in the expression of free people in freely enacted laws and at the ballot box."
Mr Bush has pinned his strategy on keeping US troops in Iraq until democracy can be declared and Iraqi security forces are able to take over security tasks. Thus a day which, according to America's vision, was meant to mark a milestone on the country's journey to democracy, instead became a new and ominous pointer to catastrophe.
Mr Blair, who is on holiday in Barbados, insisted that the completion of negotiations for a draft constitution was "an important and historic achievement". But the Prime Minister also acknowledged that the Sunni opposition presented serious difficulties for the path ahead. He said: "It is vital each of those communities participate fully in the democratic political process, including the referendum in October and elections in December."
Mr Blair also suffered a setback with the publication of a leaked memo which contradicted his claim that there was no link between the July 7 suicide attacks in London and the Iraq conflict. It emerged that Sir Michael Jay, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, on 18 May last year warning that foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East was "a key driver" for extremist recruitment.
US officials had been working feverishly in the background over recent days and weeks to try to ensure that the new draft constitution emerged with support from all of Iraq's factions. Mr Bush even called a Shia leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, to warn against alienating Sunni Arabs by pushing through a text that had not been agreed by all three communities - the dominant Shia, the Kurds and the Sunnis.
Sunni representatives said they would arrange a conference for opponents of the new draft to come up with their own alternative text, although no date for such a gathering was given. They also called on the Sunni-dominated Arab League and the United Nations to intervene.
The constitutional referendum would fail if it is rejected in October by at least two-thirds of the voters in three or more of Iraq's provinces. Although the Sunni Muslims are a minority in the national population of 27 million people, they are in the majority in four provinces. They fear federalism would lead to the break-up of the country into a Kurdish north and Shia south.
"None of the communities are 100 per cent happy with the draft," Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, said. "A constitution is not a party platform. It's a common road map." But even Mr Khalilzad did not hide his concern. "I do expect the terrorists and the extremists will try their best to intimidate people ... and to encourage opposition to this draft," he said. "That is the real test, whether they will vote for it in large numbers or not."
The Iraqi parliament went into recess yesterday almost immediately after receiving the draft. The Americans had been hoping for a vote from the body supporting the text and therefore giving it at least some aura of legitimacy before the referendum. Technically, however, it can be put to a referendum without parliamentary endorsement.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.