WHEN IRAQIS go to the polls today to vote on a constitution that is sure to be amended after parliamentary elections in December, they will not be ensuring the swift advent of democracy or an end to car bombings. Nor will they be ending the foreign occupation. And even if there is a large turnout that approves the constitution, there will be no overnight change in the guerrilla warfare that is keeping US troops tied down in a conflict America's high-tech military was not built to fight.
Nonetheless, if today's balloting is viewed against the backdrop of Iraq's recent history or the politics of the autocratic police states in the region, this imperfect consultation of the popular will in Iraq signifies something hopeful. Despite the made-in-America label, despite the concrete security barriers around US bases and placed around polling sites by US troops, the constitution that emerged from an elected Parliament, and that citizens may accept or reject, heralds something new and promising for Iraq and for most of its neighbors.
History haunts Iraqi perceptions of today's vote. Disparate ethnic and religious groups have their own fears for the future. As victims of Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaigns against them, Kurds could not accept a constitution that left them at the mercy of another Arab dictator from Baghdad. Shi'ites have their own memories of massacres at the hands of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Ba'athist regime and want their majority status reflected in political power. For their part, many Sunni Arabs fear imposition of a constitution drafted by Kurds and Shi'ites, sensing a conspiracy to dissolve the state they have become accustomed to ruling, and they foresee a fragmented Shi'ite south coming under Iranian domination.
The constitutional referendum concerns not merely the possibility of a democratic, pluralistic politics flowering in what had been the most despotic, blood-soaked Arab country but also a chance for Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shi'ites, to live alongside one another under the rule of law.
For the Bush administration, today's referendum may be primarily a steppingstone to an early American departure from Iraq. But for Iraqis and their neighbors, crucial questions are being decided: whether popular sovereignty may be a realistic aspiration in the Arab world; whether majorities can respect minority rights; and whether the Iraq of three Ottoman provinces arbitrarily joined together by British colonialists can survive as a democratic, federal, multi-ethnic state.
To the extent that today's referendum can be judged by its enemies -- the Ba'athists and jihadists who have been bombing markets and mosques -- it represents resistance to some of the most reactionary forces of this century.