Just 36 hours before voting began in the referendum on the constitution, Iraq's parliament finally added a clause indicating that the new charter would be "a guarantee for the unity" of the country. But even if the referendum being held tomorrow approves the proposed constitution, this clause will do nothing to prevent Iraq having one of the weakest central governments in modern history, and possibly splitting up as a nation. Many had feared that would be the outcome of the Anglo-American war and occupation. Others had actually planned for such an outcome.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, partition had been seen by US hardliners as the surest way of weakening the most powerful Arab state not in the American camp.
The constitution cedes almost complete territorial control and authority to the regions of the three principal communities. This includes oil revenues, which would put Arab Sunnis at a big disadvantage since almost all the oil is produced in Shia and Kurdish regions. The constitution also prevents former members of the Ba'ath party, to which most Sunnis belonged, from holding public office. The document will alienate yet more Sunnis, and be another impediment to Iraqis working together again.
The constitution provided a fresh opportunity to address the central issue in Iraq - the raging insurgency and the accompanying terrorism triggered by the occupation - by making a serious effort to reach out to Sunnis. Not only was this opportunity not taken, but so dominant have sectarian interests become that last week we saw the Shia- and Kurd-dominated parliament make a crude effort to ensure passage of the constitution by, in effect, negating whatever Sunni referendum votes might be cast. The UN secretary general's quick and public intervention led to an embarrassing reversal.
The early markers on the road to the weakening and Balkanizing of Iraq were the devastating first Gulf war, the imposition of sanctions, and the western-backed creation of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The nation was also seriously weakened when Shias, at the end of that 1991 war, heeded the elder President Bush's call to rise against Saddam. He ruthlessly suppressed the revolt, killing tens of thousands, and creating bitter Shia hatred towards him and his party.
After the 2003 war, the Americans reorganized Iraqi political life along sectarian lines, with the July 2003 Iraq governing council's membership to be filled by 12 Shias, five Kurds, five Sunnis, one Turkoman, one Assyrian and one Chaldean. At the same time, the US worked systematically to eliminate all Saddamist (which meant Sunni) influence from national life. The majority Shias were picked to hold the reins of power, and their fealty to US goals in Iraq was to be further assured by the prospect of a constitution that would offer them an oil-rich autonomy similar to the Kurds. Little did the Americans know that the Shia rank and file would be as fiercely opposed to the occupation as the Sunnis were.
Most Iraqis have continued to resist categorization into sectarian groups. It is remarkable that they have withstood the enormously destructive terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists - and other, generally unreported, killings of Sunnis by Shia and Kurdish militias - without descending into all-out civil war.
Indeed, American and British occupation officials have regularly raised the alarm about the specter of civil war, without even a hint of recognition that religious extremism and terrorism were spawned by the invasion and the sectarian occupation policies. At the same time Iran, which Bush and the neocons loathe, has a major foothold in Iraq since many of the new Shia leaders have close links with their fellow religionists to the east.
From the beginning of the occupation, the US has consistently portrayed each new milestone towards Iraqi "sovereignty" - such as the creation of the interim government under Ayad Allawi, the January elections, the formation of the transitional government in April, the adoption of a new constitution, and the coming elections - as being vital to undercut the insurgency. In practice, each attempt to legitimize the institutions of occupation enrages more Iraqis, and the level of violence increases.
In addition, each post-occupation government has proven itself incapable of achieving anything meaningful, and enjoyed little trust from Iraqis. After British tanks smashed into a Basra police station last month, killing Iraqis and freeing prisoners, the prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafaari, lost considerable domestic support because he failed to criticize Britain when he appeared at a press conference with the UK defense secretary, John Reid. It is hard to imagine such weak leadership taking the necessary bold steps towards a solution to the crisis, which must include initiating negotiations with the insurgents.
Only an end to the universally unpopular American occupation will provide hope for ending the nightmare in Iraq. It is a severe indictment of the UN security council members, and of other powers and Muslim countries, that they are making no efforts to propose alternative strategies which might succeed in curbing this ruinous, globally destabilizing war and occupation.
Salim Lone served as director of communications for the UN mission in Iraq immediately after the 2003 war.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005