BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the months of political negotiations that are bound to follow Thursday's vote for a permanent National Assembly, Iraqis will face a fundamental question: Will the nation stay together or tear apart in a civil war?
Iraqi and U.S. officials say the answer—which will define the Bush administration's legacy in Iraq—lies in Iraqi politicians' ability to set aside fierce rivalries and old injustices and build coalitions after what's sure to be a fractious vote along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that while he's cautiously optimistic about Iraq's future, "if we get a government that's perceived as sectarian, as working to its party's advantage, then it will be tougher."
Alaa Maki, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, an influential Sunni Muslim group, said the Shiite Muslim majority will be making a mistake if it pushes to form a government without Sunni participation.
"If the Shiites take the government, there will be a severe civil war," he warned.
The U.S. invasion precipitated a historic shift in control of the Iraqi government, marked by the rise to power of a Shiite group formed by clerics with close ties to neighboring Iran. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sunni Muslims, about 20 percent of Iraq's population, had long dominated the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.
But after years of discrimination and persecution, the Shiites have moved to seize control of the nation. Thursday's elections for a four-year government is a chance for them to cement that position.
"It's a reality," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said at a luncheon this week. "The majority of the people in the parliament and those who participated in the elections are Shiite. ... If we get 50 percent (of the parliament), we can control the government."
Left hanging is whether a transition to Shiite domination will proceed smoothly or tear the seams of a country that has three regions: the Kurdish north, the Sunni west and center, and the Shiite south.
A series of interviews with top Iraqi politicians during the past week suggested that Iraqis are a long way from coming together peacefully. If anything, in the year since interim national elections in January, Iraq's sectarian divisions have become more pronounced:
_Shiite militias have strengthened their base in the center and south of the nation and have infiltrated Iraq's security services. Evidence is strong that they're torturing Sunnis in government detention centers and eliminating them with late-night death squads.
_Sunnis continue to form the backbone of an insurgency in the center and west of Iraq. The fighters have killed thousands of Shiites and hosted foreign and domestic jihadists who walk into crowded Shiite markets with suicide vests to kill and maim civilians.
_And to the north, the Kurdish population has a large militia and has become bolder in its push for near complete autonomy, if not independence.
"It's a very critical time. ... Either Iraq will survive or Iraq will be over," said Iraq's former interior minister, Falah al-Nakib. "There could be a lot of blood."
Nakib is on a ticket, headed by previous Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, that hopes to organize a coalition of secular Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis to counter the dominant Shiite cleric-led United Iraqi Alliance. Sunnis are expected to turn out in large numbers and not repeat their boycott of the January elections.
But some Shiite leaders believe they must push aggressively for their agenda because the American administration is becoming increasingly concerned about their ties to Iran and may be turning away from them.
While Shiites are grateful for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, they also remember 1991, when America urged them to revolt against Saddam and then backed away, leaving thousands to be slaughtered.
Now Shiites complain about the uproar over Sunni detainees who were freed by American forces last month at an Interior Ministry compound where many had been tortured. In the eyes of many Shiites, being rough with detainees is the only way to get information that could save scores of Shiite lives.
"I am amazed. When our Sunni brothers are killed, the Americans get very concerned. But when Shiites are killed daily, no one speaks," said Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of a main Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, and a powerful member of Iraq's National Assembly. "Do people think the blood of the Shiites is to be spilled like water?"
There's concern too that the U.S. administration will begin letting more people who were members of Saddam's Baath party into the political system.
Al-Jaafari, a member of the Shiite political bloc, has spoken of "cleansing" Baathists from the government, which many Sunnis consider an attack on their political leaders.
A politician "needs a clean history; his hands cannot be bloody," al-Jaafari said.
In the southern city of Najaf, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the governor, Dr. Asaad Abu Gelal, said Wednesday that he was hopeful that the United Iraqi Alliance would win the majority of seats in the parliament and ensure the cleansing of the Baathists.
"This means democracy, integrity, faithfulness, sincerity," he said. "It means de-Baathification. It means a lot for Iraq."
In a demonstration of more than 2,000 people on the streets of Najaf in support of leading cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, chants were peppered with a political cry: "Death to Baathists."
After January's elections, the Shiites brokered a deal with Kurdish politicians that left the Sunnis in the cold during the formation and running of the government and the drafting of the nation's constitution.
"We heard secondhand that, during the constitutional drafting committee, the Kurds and the Shiites said (to the Sunnis), `Go sit over there and don't say anything. The only reason you're here is because the Americans made us'" invite them, Casey said.
Shiite politicians say they'd like to work with all groups in Iraq, but there comes a time when the nation's majority has to step forward and rule if the others won't cooperate.
"The Sunnis are a very important part of the Iraqi people," al-Jaafari said at the luncheon. "But let us deal with the reality of things. ... We cannot as a government ... please one party and ignore the others."
(Leila Fadel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report from Najaf.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051214 USIRAQ parties
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ