BAGHDAD, Iraq—The naming of a bloc of Shiite Muslim candidates that's likely to sweep upcoming national elections is heightening worries that the vote will divide a war-torn country and push it to civil war.
Predictions of widespread violence between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite religious groups—frequently made since Saddam Hussein was toppled 20 months ago—haven't come to pass. But that could change, some say, with elections certain to delineate the fault line between the two sects more clearly than at any time since Saddam's fall.
"We are afraid the elections will divide the Iraqis instead of unifying them," said Naseer Chaderji, a former member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and a moderate Sunni politician.
Members of the Shiite coalition say they recognize the potential for problems, but add that they're pushing to ensure Sunnis aren't left out of the process. The deadline for registering for the elections, which will decide a national assembly that will write the nation's constitution, has been extended to Dec. 15, with the field of candidates to be released on Dec. 20, according to Iraq's electoral commission.
"In the alliance, we are insistent that the right conditions be created in all areas, particularly the Sunni areas to give them a fair chance to be able to participate in these elections," said Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear physicist and key figure in the Shiite coalition, known as the United Iraq Alliance. "Elections without their full participation or reasonable participation are not going to represent the Iraqi people as they should be represented."
Negotiations led by aides to top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani led to the formation of the Shiite bloc, which was announced Thursday. It almost certainly will be backed by the nation's Shiites, who are thought to make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population.
Kurds and other groups are in the coalition, as is at least one Sunni politician. But the slate is dominated by representatives of the nation's most powerful Shiite religious political parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party. Both have ties to Iran and are expected to form a government heavily influenced by Shiite Islam.
The Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam and make up about 30 percent of the population, most likely would be relegated to minority party status with little power to shape a new constitution.
The probable outcome might be a meeting of the minds between Shiites and Kurds that would leave Shiites controlling the bulk of the country in the south and Kurds in charge in the north. Sunnis, with a long history of hostility toward Shiites and Kurds, would be left in control in the western and part of the central sections of the country, where there are relatively few oil fields ready for crude export.
"In short, they're going to be excluded from the future of Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, a Jordan-based senior analyst for International Crisis Group, an international think tank. "If that is allowed to happen, then we might well be on the road to civil war."
Many Sunni Muslims in Iraq share that view, though analysts foresee efforts to prevent their isolation.
"I expect sectarian differences to increase in this time frame, but there will also be efforts to bridge these differences," said W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College who's studying the Iraqi political situation. "Sunni-Shiite differences have to be faced eventually, and one hopes that the Shiites will choose to give the Sunnis some reassurance for the sake of national unity."
The influential Muslim Scholars Association, which claims to represent up to 3,000 of Iraq's Sunni mosques, has called for a boycott of the elections. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's leading Sunni political organization, has demanded that the vote be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time.
Of particular concern, said Hiltermann, are areas where Shiites and Sunnis live in close quarters.
There have been signs that the fissures are widening. In the Baghdad Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, a car bomb on Dec. 3 killed at least 14 and injured 19 at a Shiite mosque.
During prayers Friday at a mosque in the nearby Shiite neighborhood of Kadhamiyah, an imam, or spiritual leader, backed by the Supreme Council, gave a scathing speech about the explosion, unusually angry for a mainstream Shiite mosque.
"They were aiming to target as large a number of Shiites as possible. The suicide bomber wore the devil's beard, and he wore clothes from the people of hell. We lost about 30 men, and I would like to talk about elections through that incident," the imam said.
"Those who want you to have a peace agreement with these criminals, they are telling you that they are carrying explosive materials and they want to kill you; and you think you should have a peace agreement with them?"
Across the Tigris River from Kadhamiyah, the imam at the main Sunni mosque in Adhamiya didn't mention the car bomb in his Friday sermon.
Ahmed Mohammed, 35, a Sunni day laborer who was at the mosque, said he was hopeful about the elections. "At the end, we're all brothers in Islam," he said.
Mohammed Hassan, a 27-year-old Sunni who recently graduated from college, took a different view, one shared by many around him.
"The elections are illegitimate and unjust," he said. "In my opinion, even if the Sunnis participate, the election will fail."
(Special correspondents Omar Jassim and Yasser al Salihee contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.