ALWAYS read the small print. Always listen to the new word. Last week an American military commander in Iraq spoke about the “provisional” elections due to be held there at the end of January. “Provisional” was new to me in this context and I still don't know what it means, except as an attempt to suggest that the elections will not be all that important.

The US government and the Iraqi interim government have burned their boats over the January elections. Despite protests from several representative groups in Iraq they have insisted that the date of 30 January is set in concrete. This election is for an assembly whose main task will be to finalise the draft Iraqi constitution approved under pressure from the US by the unelected governing council last June. A further election for whatever parliamentary body is created by the constitution will take place at the end of 2005. In this sense only is next January's election “provisional” but that does not mean it is unimportant. Indeed it is hard to think of a more crucial task for Iraq's future than writing a constitution acceptable to all ethnic and religious communities.

It is unlikely that there will be many voterss in the Sunni areas of Iraq in January. Partly this will be a reluctance to participate in the Shiite dominated elections but partly also it will be because in Fallujah the 200'000 residents who disappeared before US forces sacked the city last month will be more concerned on their return to rebuild their shattered homes and businesses. But any consitution drafted without full Sunni participation will not in the long term be worth the parchment on which it is written.


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