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Unsettled in Iraq

THE MOST telling reaction to the draft Iraqi constitution has come not from Crawford, Texas, but from Tehran. There, the head of Iran's Guardian Council hailed the document. ''After years of struggle," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said, ''an Islamic state has come to power." That is a more accurate description of the potential of the document than President Bush provided Sunday in praising its ''far-reaching protections for human freedoms." As much as the Bush administration wants the Iraqi people to adopt a constitution and take over the fight against the insurgents, US officials must have misgivings about a document that Iran welcomes.

Basic human and democratic rights are given lip service in the document. But it also states that Islam is the country's official religion, that it will be ''a basic source of legislation," and that no law can be passed that violates ''the undisputed rules" of the Islamic faith. The draft says that judges on Iraq's highest court should include experts in Islamic law, suggesting that Muslim clerics would sit on it. It is no surprise that an Iranian official should be pleased by the document, especially since it would facilitate the formation of a powerful region in southern Iraq that, like Iran, would be mainly Shiite.

This last point, in particular, has won the draft the opposition of most of Iraq's Sunni leaders. If the Shiites in the south split off and control the oil there and Kurds in the north do the same with its oil reserves, the Sunnis fear they would have to make do with a leftover state in the middle with few resources.

For the administration, the one silver lining in Sunni hostility to the draft is that it will likely prompt Sunnis to end their boycott of the nation-building process. Sunnis are now being encouraged by their leaders to register so they can vote against the document in the Oct. 15 referendum. If a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's 18 provinces rejects the draft, it will be defeated, and the Sunnis hold majorities in at least three provinces. This election activity of Sunnis could provide a political alternative to the largely Sunni-conducted insurgency.

If Sunni voters do block the draft constitution, it would force a restart of the whole process of drawing up a basic charter for the country. The administration cannot be happy at that prospect, but it might be preferable to approval of a constitution that is hailed by Iran and so hated by Sunnis that many would continue their violent assaults on US and Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians.

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