CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - In Iraq, the lead-up to Saturday's referendum on the draft constitution looks very troubling indeed. The country continues to be plagued by widespread fighting, sectarian killings, insecurity, economic disaster, and the breakdown of basic services. There is little chance that even the successful holding of the referendum can help improve things. What can the US do to lessen the scale of the disaster?
Under better circumstances, what is happening in Iraq today could have been similar to what happened in South Africa in 1994: a transition from minority rule to majority rule using the ballot box and embracing a newly democratic constitution. But it's not turning out that way - for several reasons.
In South Africa, the leaders of the formerly ruling (white) minority community were fully engaged in the negotiation over the political transition, and were well able to protect their own core interests. Not so in Iraq. In South Africa, too, the leaders of the newly emergent majority community in 1990-94 showed political sensitivity and well-honed political smarts. Not so in today's Iraq. The majority Shiites and their Kurdish allies tried to go for broke with the present draft constitution, paying little heed to objections raised by the newly vulnerable Sunnis.
The most controversial provisions of Iraq's draft constitution are those that allow the devolution of significant governing powers to small, sub-national bodies that would be linked together only loosely through a federation. This radical devolution of power is viewed with great distrust by most Sunnis. Indeed, it could pave the way for a Bosnia-style breakup along contested interzone borders, accompanied by widespread ethnic and sectarian "cleansing." Many political analysts have now warned that the Shiite and Kurdish (and American) insistence on ramming through this constitution has itself pushed Iraq closer to civil war.
In addition, the failure to win an Iraq-wide atmosphere of calm in the run-up to the vote has several very negative consequences. It means there has been nothing like a reasoned national debate over the pros and cons of the constitution. It also means no outside election monitors have been able to watch the vote. So whichever way Saturday's vote is declared to go, the side that loses has little intrinsic reason to trust the legitimacy of the process. If the Sunnis "lose" in their bid to block the constitution they - and their many powerful supporters in other Arab countries - may well contest that result and redouble their support for the present insurgency. If the Kurds and Shiites "lose" in their attempt to push the constitution through, the Kurds (and perhaps many Shiites) may well react by moving even faster toward establishing the de facto independence of their regions, and thus the country's breakup.
In either way lies a real danger of escalation into outright civil war. And if a full-blown civil war erupts in Iraq there's a significant risk it might destabilize, or even engulf, several other countries in the region.
What can the US do to avert such a disaster? Some people say the US should stay in Iraq to prevent the outbreak of a civil war. But this misreads the record of the 30-month period the US has already spent as the occupying power there. During those 30 months, ethnic and sectarian tensions have worsened considerably. There is no reason to expect that another 12 or 30 months of US presence would be any different.
If the US stays, the intra-Iraqi civil strife is very likely indeed to continue, or even escalate. But if the US announces a speedy departure, and then leaves in good order - who knows? The Iraqis may fall into civil war afterward, or they may not. But at least the US troops will not be caught in the middle, and the US will not be as morally responsible for the strife. Also, if the US troops are clearly on their way out, then no Iraqi community will find it as easy to overreach politically as the Kurds and Shiites have done recently (while protected by the imperfect shield of the US troop presence). And all sincere Iraqis will realize - as South Africans did some dozen years ago - that if they want to save their country they will need to find a way to deal with each other.
Will that happen? It still might. Who would have thought back in 1990 that black and white South Africans could find a way to work together? And if Iraqis should lack confidence in negotiating their future among themselves and feel they still need a reassuring outside presence - well, there are many candidates for the job more qualified than the US military.
Despite many good intentions, US policies have thus far brought Iraq to the brink of internal breakdown. This week's referendum won't stop that process. Within the next six to eight months, the best thing that could persuade Iraqis to hold their country together is a speedy and total exit of US troops.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.