Leading article: A far from satisfactory step forward

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The Independent Online

"The conflict environment of the early 21st- century certainly does represent a new era in warfare," said the International Institute for Strategic Studies yesterday, adding: "but not the era that Western military planners expected." That is to put it mildly. Having expected a quick win in Iraq and a grateful population, the US and Britain now find themselves bogged down in an increasingly debilitating battle against insurgents in which they are regarded as the enemy occupiers. Yet Washington and London seem unable to figure out an exit strategy for fear of being perceived as cutting and running.

How far yesterday's referendum can be seen as a step towards a solution is doubtful. It is certainly better that Iraq has a constitution than that it does not. It is good that some 62 per cent of the electorate did vote. With luck, it will help the democratic process along to parliamentary elections due on 15 December. But the constitution is far from being a satisfactory structure for the future of the country. Still less has the debate around it proved an effective means of drawing Iraq's disparate communities together.

The overall figure of 79 per cent in favour of the new constitution with 21 per cent against hides some glaring regional differences. The three Sunni-dominated provinces voted against, and although only two, instead of three, voted by the two-thirds majority necessary to stop the constitution in its tracks, it still leaves a glaring division between groupings that will be hard to bridge.

That makes the politics of the next two months crucial. Having got sanction for the new constitution over the heads of the Sunni minority, it is doubly important that the Iraqi government works to bring the Sunni leadership back on board and makes the community feel it is worthwhile to participate in the December elections. No amount of talk, however, can sort out the underlying security situation on which all else depends. The International Institute for Strategic Studies called for new tactics by the military. But it also needs a new approach. If the Western troops are part of the problem, then declaring an exit strategy and attaching a kind of date to it can only help.