Millions of Iraqis are expected to go to the polls on Saturday to vote on a constitution they have never seen, as increasing violence and worsening communal tensions hamper distribution of the document.
American and Iraqi forces yesterday attacked targets in the western town of Haditha as they continued an offensive against fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq. A separate operation is aimed at pacifying Kurdish cities in the north, while British forces in southern Iraq are seeking insurgents responsible for a series of sophisticated bombs that have killed six of their number since July and set off a war of words between Britain and Iran.
Although distribution of the constitution has begun in a few areas of Baghdad, many other parts of the capital and the rest of the country are unlikely to receive copies. The only ones available in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, were brought from Baghdad by Sunni politicians urging a "no" vote.
The constitution will fail if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it. Four have Sunni majorities, but violence is expected to prevent sufficient numbers of voters reaching the polls to defeat it. In Baghdad, according to Peter Galbraith, a former US peace envoy, there are 1,000 murders a month, apart from those killed in suicide bombings.
According to a study by the Liberal Democrats, an average of 53 people a day have been killed in Iraq during the record-length House of Commons recess, which ends tomorrow. The first comprehensive survey of fatalities over the past three months shows that a minimum of 3,800 lost their lives - substantially more than the entire toll in Northern Ireland since 1969. In the past two months alone - during which time Tony Blair holidayed in Barbados - 3,174 Iraqis died.
A detailed analysis of the casualties shows ordinary Iraqi citizens account for more than 90 per cent of fatalities. During August and September 2,842 civilians, 195 Iraqi soldiers and 137 coalition soldiers were killed.
But while the US accuses Zarqawi of responsibility for most of the bloodshed, critics accuse Washington of ignoring sectarian violence by Shia militias, some allied to senior government figures, against Sunni civilians. Last week the bodies of 22 Sunni men who had been handcuffed and shot were found near the Iranian border. Relatives said they were abducted from their homes in Baghdad several weeks ago.
Britain believes some of the same militias are receiving help from Iran to make more dangerous roadside bombs. Iran has denied involvement in the attacks.Reuse content