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New constitution may not halt Iraq's fragmentation

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A week after a historic referendum on a new constitution, Iraq looks much as it did before the vote: Kurdish militias patrol the north, warring Shiite Muslim militias wrestle for control of the south and in the center, an insurgency supported by an angry Sunni Muslim Arab minority battles U.S. forces, the Iraqi government and the Shiites.

No one expected an overnight transformation. But it remains uncertain whether the new constitution and Wednesday's brief appearance of Saddam Hussein in a courtroom cage can halt or even slow the violence and sectarian divisions that have steadily gained momentum since the U.S.-led invasion 31 months ago.

"Today marks another momentous step toward the building of a new Iraq," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said in a statement at the start of Saddam's trial. "Like the constitutional referendum we have just witnessed, the trials ... at the Iraq Special Tribunal will help pave the path to a democratic and independent Iraq, based on the rule of law."

Khalilzad's optimism may prove right, but the perennially sunny comments by U.S. leaders on past events, such as the capture of Saddam, the transfer of sovereignty and January's National Assembly elections, have been premature at best. And today's reasons for skepticism extend far beyond concern over the insurgency.

The country is fragmenting, not pulling together, and halting its disintegration won't be easy:

_ Iraq's ethnic groups are taking matters into their own hands and battling each other. The Iraqi security forces have come a long way in the past two years, but American officials say that only one battalion is ready to operate independently. And many units are manned largely by Shiite troops, some of whom are bent on revenge against the Sunni minority, which had dominated Iraq under Saddam, a fellow Sunni.

In the north, the Kurdish peshmerga militia is the main security force. Throughout the south, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Organization are fighting province by province for control of the streets. The Baghdad government and official forces are almost irrelevant.

_ Most Sunnis and many Shiites lack confidence in Iraq's government, which many see as a cast of outsiders, including former exiles, who are more interested in religious and political causes than national unity or public services.

_ The insurgency, mainly Sunni, has killed thousands in car bombings, roadside explosions and shootings in central and western Iraq.

Security keeps deteriorating, despite the formation of the now-defunct Iraqi governing council in July 2003, followed by a handover of sovereignty, national elections and last weekend's constitutional referendum. After each event—usually accompanied by massive crackdowns and, often, a ban on vehicular traffic—the attacks have dropped, then spiked again in the following months.

The four-week moving average of attacks—which smoothes out daily fluctuations—has had peaks and valleys but generally has stayed about the same or increased during the past 18 months, according to military statistics. Perhaps most worrying, the weekly number of effective attacks—those that wounded or killed American and Iraqi troops or civilians—has on average more than doubled since February 2004 to 165 during the week of Oct. 7.

Some American military officers say the violence could worsen if the political system fractures further.

"Maybe they just need to have their civil war," a senior military official in Baghdad said recently. "In this part of the world it's almost a way of life." He spoke on condition of anonymity because his opinions are at odds with official views.

Most Sunnis who voted last Saturday tried to derail the constitution. While they apparently mustered a two-thirds vote against it in two provinces, they needed a third to defeat it.

The Bush administration says Sunni participation in the vote mattered more than the outcome, after most Sunnis boycotted last January's parliamentary elections. Should the Sunnis continue to engage, the thinking goes, that could weaken Sunni support for the insurgency.

But some Sunni leaders have charged fraud—such as stuffing the ballot boxes—raising doubts about whether Iraq's Sunnis will consider the referendum legitimate and whether it will encourage them to participate more actively in politics.

Azziz Shayal, a political analyst at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, said the insurgency had thrived on Iraqis giving up on the political process and that it was hard to see why the constitutional vote would change that. Many Baghdad neighborhoods still spend half the day without electricity, and water shortages are common. Knight Ridder reported this summer that the last interim government had misspent or stolen some $1 billion, according to the Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit.

U.S. diplomats have complained that it's difficult to get leaders from the nation's majority Shiite sect, some 60 percent of the population, and its minority Sunni Kurdish and Sunni Arab populations to sit down and talk meaningfully.

"Every time there is any political progress, there's a corresponding growth in violence," Shayal said. "We should be looking at the incubators of violence in Iraq: the lack of services and the lack of dialogue ... but instead we get only more violence, more blood."

Even Shiites in southern Iraq are growing skeptical. Turnout for the constitutional vote there was far lower than it was for January's national elections.

"In (the southern city of) Basra we don't have any government. We're ruled by religious parties. There are no services in the city except for the streets where the politicians live," said Faleh al Bahadli, a 46-year-old Shiite taxi driver there. "Our politicians leave their families outside of Iraq. They come here to make money for eight months and then they leave Iraq."

The majority of Iraqi political leaders gained office with an assist from Washington, first from then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq L. Paul Bremer, who appointed the governing council in July 2003. They used the positions to dominate the U.S.-facilitated election last January. Those who lost the elections remained in Baghdad political circles and have continued to play a key role. Most came to Iraq after the U.S. invasion from homes in places such as Britain, Iran and France, where many of their families remain.

Among them is National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al Rubaie, who scowled Wednesday when asked about the guerrilla war that's killed thousands.

"We are giving too much credit to the insurgency," he said. During the interview, his phone rang with the news that a reporter for a British newspaper had been kidnapped in Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad.

Al Rubaie didn't bother to call the Iraqi police or army. "I will contact the leader of the Jaish al Mahdi in Sadr City," he said, referring to the cleric al-Sadr's militia.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Mohammed Al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.