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Ethnic, religious divisions raise questions about effort to unify Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Deadly demonstrations in Kirkuk and a new political alliance among Sunni Muslims are raising fresh questions about whether the United States can mold Iraq into a secular democracy.

Two weeks ago, ethnic violence among Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens left seven people dead in three days in Kirkuk, a city 150 miles north of Baghdad. Sectarian tensions also were mentioned as possible motives for a raid on a Baghdad mosque where the new Sunni political alliance was scheduled to meet, as well as for a series of car bombings that have killed or injured dozens of people in southern Shiite Muslim strongholds.

While maintaining a united front in condemning the violence, Iraqi politicians privately are choosing sides in a battle that could determine who comes out on top and whether the country remains unified when the U.S.-led coalition cedes power to Iraqis this summer.

Some Iraqi political scientists warn that a proposal being considered to establish a federal system for governing the country—in which power would be divided among a central authority and a number of provinces—might worsen the situation by causing fierce battles over oil revenues, overlooking smaller minority groups and drawing neighboring countries into the fray.

"Everyone is looking for power, so each group introduces itself to Iraqis as their salvation," said Sadoun al Dulame, an Iraqi sociologist who heads an independent Baghdad research center specializing in postwar public opinion polls. "But if we use sectarian tools as political tools, we are all going to lose. If we continue these political gimmicks, the fragmenting of our country is inevitable. Civil war is inevitable."

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council symbolizes efforts to mold the country's various religious and ethnic groups into a common government. On any given day, visitors can hear staff members chatting on their coalition-issued cell phones in Kurdish, Arabic and even Aramaic, the ancient tongue still spoken by many of the nation's Assyrian Christian minority.

The Governing Council is breaking into strategic subsets as elections grow nearer. Two weeks ago, Sunnis gained ground when they won Kurdish support for the all-Sunni political alliance.

Shiites, meanwhile, are working hard to secure the power they inherited once their longtime oppressor Saddam Hussein was toppled last spring. With majority representation on the Governing Council and the U.S. courting of important clerics, the once-repressed Shiites are enemy No. 1 for rival groups seeking power.

Possible sectarian motives were mentioned immediately by U.S. and Iraqi officials after a car bombing in August killed an important ayatollah and more than 100 other worshippers at a shrine in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Similar motives were discussed when 12 Iraqis and six coalition troops were killed Dec. 27 in Karbala, another southern holy city, in the largest coordinated suicide attacks in postwar Iraq.

"There's no doubt in my mind that hidden hands are working to get rid of symbolic Shiites who threaten the power of other political entities," said Nadhim Jassour, an international studies professor at Baghdad University. "I'm talking about hands from both inside and outside Iraq."

From American and Sunni standpoints, Iran is one of the most worrisome meddlers. The U.S.-led coalition and Sunni factions fear an Iran-influenced Shiite agenda that could lead to a theocracy similar to the Islamic regime of Iraq's neighbor. So instead of courting secular parties, efforts are under way to woo clerics heeded by Iraq's Shiite majority. But giving too much credence to Islamic hard-liners with murky visions for Iraq's future is dangerous, said Dulame, the sociologist.

"All the Islamic parties regard themselves as the best solution," Dulame said. "But when you ask them about their platform, they hand you a Quran."

A Governing Council delegation recently visited the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al Sistani, the nation's predominant Shiite cleric, and was vital in persuading him to reconsider his position on elections.

Sistani previously had denounced American plans for a caucus process that would select a wide group of leaders by July, followed by elections in 2005 and a new Iraqi constitution. The cleric, whose rulings are adhered to by about 60 percent of Iraqis, called for a full democratic election in June. Sistani has said since that he would back down from that plan if the United Nations determines that elections that soon couldn't be fair.

Hamed al Kifaey, secretary to the Governing Council, said sectarian rivalries were too entrenched for any quick fixes by election time.

"It doesn't matter whether you have elections tomorrow or next month, people will still cry foul," Kifaey said. "People here are just not used to democracy."

Dan Senor, a senior coalition spokesman in Baghdad, maintains that recent sectarian flare-ups aren't indicative of a serious threat to U.S. plans to bring democracy to Iraq. American administrators, he added, are encouraged by the commitment of Governing Council members to build a nation respectful of the country's diverse religious and ethnic traditions.

"It could be federalist in terms of government structure, but still a unified Iraq," Senor said. "This country had 35 years of among the most brutal torture subjected to any people. That has had a very unifying effect. For better or for worse, Iraqis have been bonded by that experience."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.