Leading article: A trip to the ballot box amid chaos and uncertainty

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Iraqis go to the polls tomorrow in the latest stage of their forced march towards democratisation. Like the parliamentary elections at the start of this year, the referendum on the draft Constitution will be a bitter-sweet occasion. It will be sweet, because the opportunity to vote, still less to approve rules designed to underpin a democratic state, is something that Iraqis were all too long denied. That as many as 12 million of the country's 15 million registered voters could make their way to the polling stations, defying bombs and bullets, will be as inspiring as the manner in which Iraqis voted for their parliament. This manifestation of democracy, however partial and unsatisfactory, is the single benefit to have come out of the US and British invasion.

But the referendum will be bitter on far more counts. It will be bitter because Iraqis will vote not in the freedom they hoped would follow the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but amid still gathering disorder and violence. On the eve of voting, the country is in effect under martial law. The polling stations have been fortified with high walls and wire to fend off suicide bombers.

It will be bitter, too, because it is not at all certain that the result will be in Iraq's long-term interest. A complete boycott by the country's Sunni population may have been avoided by some last-minute adjustment of the wording to include reference to the "unity of Iraq". The Sunni Islamic Party now says that it will support a "yes" vote in the referendum. The moderate Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has instructed the Shia faithful to vote "yes", and in the north, the Kurdish population is also expected to voice its approval.

But even a narrow "yes" vote will not guarantee either the long-term unity of Iraq or its peaceful advance towards stability. One reason why so many Sunnis are likely to boycott the proceedings, or vote "no" is that they regard it as a blueprint for federalisation - a loosening of the ties that could, in their view, presage the eventual break-up of the country. Given the dearth of oil in their region, this would not be to their advantage.

Above all, though, this referendum will be a bitter occasion for all the reasons set out with such cogency by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent today. It is, as he argues, the latest stage in an artificial timetable, imposed by Washington for its own domestic purposes. As he explains, the whole sorry US enterprise was doomed early on because it was conceived in terms of US politics and experience, rather than in terms of Iraq's specific history and reality.

Time after time, the US has presented a falsely optimistic picture. It has been able to do this, because the multiplying dangers have made reporting the truth nigh impossible. Iraqi government ministers, like many resident foreigners, are confined to the Green Zone. Outside, life is harsher in many respects than it was under Saddam Hussein. Security has broken down; electricity and clean water are in shorter supply, and women - once among the most free in the Arab world - are becoming second-class citizens.

The Constitution, even if it passes, will remedy none of this, partly because it does not stipulate the continuing unity of the country or the equality of women as absolute requirements. Chiefly, though, it will be deficient because, like so much of what passes for Iraq's democracy, it will have no application in real life. It will merely perpetuate the yawning gap that has opened up between the Iraq that the US and British wish for - the one they would surely like to withdraw from - and the Iraq that is teetering on the brink of civil war: the one that Iraqis must live in.