With the passage of its constitution in a nationwide vote, Iraq’s transition is now complete: not into a democratic bellwether for the Middle East but into ground zero for a civil war that threatens to ignite a regional conflagration.

Predicting as much before the vote, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said
on Sept. 22 that the Iraqi constitution “could split the country apart.” He told Reuters that Iraq is “gradually going toward disintegration” and that “will draw the countries of the region into conflict.”

Just days later, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned on Sept. 26 that “a rushed constitutional process has deepened rifts and hardened feelings” among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. It said “the constitution is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency, encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country’s violent break-up.”

Sunni Arabs in particular felt the charter had been stacked against them by allowing oil-rich provinces in the Shiite south and Kurdish north to form autonomous regions. Sunnis showed some of the greatest enthusiasm for the vote: Not because they were “joining the base of this broad political process,” as Condoleezza Rice put it, but “So that history can witness that we said no,” as Sunnis from the town of Balad explained to the Washington Post.

Even more ominous, another Sunni told the Post, “The fight will continue against the Americans, whether we vote yes or no.”

The referendum only hardened their bitterness because of suspicious ballots results. If voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces had rejected the charter by a two-thirds majority, the constitution would have failed. According to the New York Times, Sunnis dominate in four provinces. In two of the Sunni provinces, Anbar and Salaheddin, more than 70 percent rejected the constitution. But in a third, Nineveh, some 78 percent are said to have approved the document, prompting cries of fraud.

Of the 2.5 million people in Nineveh, some 90 percent come from communities, such as Arab, Turkomen and Assyrian, overwhelmingly opposed to the constitution. Yet initial results put the no vote at a paltry 100,000.

Beforehand, one journalist predicted fraud in Nineveh, explaining how Kurds rigged the vote there in January. Gareth Porter, in an article entitled “Stuffing Iraq’s Balllot Boxes,” spoke with U.S. Army Maj. Anthony Cruz who worked with the province’s electoral commission. Cruz recounted how ballots failed to get to non-Kurd areas, while Kurdish militiamen stole others. One village of 12,000 returned 115,000 ballots, leading Cruz at the time to joke about a “500 percent voter participation rate.”

With Sunnis convinced that the process was rigged, the sectarian conflict will likely intensify. But another inescapable factor is also adding to the strife: oil.

The story is buried deep in the constitution.

Article 109 of the new constitution recognizes the country’s vast oil wealth as “the property of all the Iraqi people.” But Article 110 leaves a loophole big enough to sail an oil tanker through by giving the federal government jurisdiction only over “oil and gas extracted from current fields.” According to Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, “current fields” cover just one-third of Iraq’s known reserves of 115 billion barrels.

The same article states that the federal government and producing regions will together “develop oil and gas wealth … relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.”

The constitution then states: “All that is not written in the exclusive powers of the federal authorities is in the authority of the regions.” Incredibly, in any dispute between regions and the federal government over shared powers, “priority will be given to the region’s law.”

Finally, Article 114 allows “One province or more… the right to form a region” through a referendum, while Article 129 calls for regional governments to organize “internal security forces for the region such as police, security and regional guards.”

To sum it all up, any one of Iraq’s 18 provinces can set up an autonomous region with its own government and military force, negotiate with outside companies to exploit oil reserves and dispute any “shared power” with the federal government – such as developing reserves – knowing that it will win every time.

These provisions outline the concept of “federalism” that has provoked intense Sunni opposition. But enthusiasm for the “democratic process” has waned among other communities. In the southern province of Najaf, reported the Washington Post, an estimated 50 percent of voters turned out for the Oct. 15 referendum versus 80 percent in January.

With an ineffectual government composed mainly of exiles and self-interested parties, most Iraqis are more concerned about basic services, jobs and security than another round of balloting, which is coming in December.

The frustration was best summed up by one Iraqi who told Robert Fisk of The Independent (London) that while the constitution was important, “my family lives in fear of kidnapping, I’m too afraid to tell my father I work for journalists, and we only have one hour in six of electricity and we can’t even keep our food from going bad in the fridge. Federalism? You can’t eat federalism and you can’t use it to fuel your car.”