BAGHDAD, Iraq—Asking someone whether he or she is Shiite, Sunni or Kurd was once taboo in Iraq. Iraq was one country, bound through wars and dictatorship, not a nation of divided sects or ethnic groups, came the standard answer.
But that national identity has been breaking down in the parliamentary election campaign. In the absence of political ideologies or competing policy agendas, the nation's newly formed political parties are increasingly depending on religious and ethnic labels to help voters distinguish among them.
While the appeals help build party support for the Jan. 30 elections, they contribute to a growing sectarianism.
Shiite Muslim Arabs account for roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population. Sunni Muslim Arabs are about 20 percent, and the ethnic Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslim, are another 20 percent, mainly in the north of the country.
On the campaign posters plastered on thick concrete blast walls around Baghdad, only one name and face appears regularly: Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric, who isn't a candidate. Sistani appears on campaign signs for the major Shiite party, the United Iraqi Alliance. Some signs have Sistani and a verse from the Quran. Others have him above a campaign slogan.
"With your voice, we will build Iraq," reads one. "No to dictatorship, Yes to the coalition," reads another.
None of the signs spell out what the party would do if it won.
Political parties are widely distrusted in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's reign, only one party could operate freely, the Baath Party. And party politics usually meant courting favors for party members.
Indeed, the word "party" has such negative connotations that of the 111 political parties that will appear on the ballot, only 19 use the word "party" in their names. The rest call themselves coalitions, gatherings, assemblies and the like.
Political parties "are going to the religious leaders to gain the people's respect," said Ahmed al Ruwaee, an economics professor at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad who's followed the election. "It's because the parties are not confident in their base."
In the process, it creates sectarianism, al Ruwaee said. Instead of campaigning on their plans for the country, they're leaning on the citizens' loyalty to their religious leaders.
Saad Jawad Quindeel, a spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—which is part of the United Iraqi Alliance—defended evoking Sistani's name in the campaign. Quindeel said the Shiite campaign included "recognizing the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people."
He denied that a Shiite slate meant sectarianism. "We are not calling for a Sistani state. No doubt if we did that, we would divide the state," he said.
Earlier this week, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who's running on a secular Shiite slate, said he believed that the election would unify the country.
The Shiites are expected to make big gains and win control of the government. The minority Sunnis have run the government for most of the past century, and the expected change in power may be contributing to sectarian discord.
At Baghdad University, students hesitated to suggest a divide between sects. A group of women sitting at a cafeteria in the student union at first said Iraq remained a united country. But talking about their views on the election widened the gap.
Wasab Mehdi, 21, a Shiite political-science student, said she didn't know much about the candidates, but planned to vote, calling it a "duty to my country."
She insisted there's no divide between sects: "We are all Muslims."
Next to her sat her friend Nadia Khatim, 21, a Sunni, who said she wouldn't vote because her neighborhood was littered with messages threatening to behead anyone who voted. And Khatim said she was worried about what Iraq would look like under Shiite leadership. "I have fears that my country will change," she said.
Mehdi chimed in: "There is no need to worry. It doesn't matter, Sunni or Shiite, as long as an honorable person is in power."
"For you, it doesn't matter," her friend responded. For Khatim herself, as a Sunni, "it will."
Poor security inhibits learning much about the parties and candidates beyond simple labels. The Independent Electoral Commission, which is in charge of producing the elections, has refused to release the names of the 7,000-plus candidates who are running, saying it's too dangerous for them. It has promised to announce the names eventually.
In the meantime, it's been up to the parties to let people know who's running on their slates. Many release only the top names on the ticket. The parties also say the bad security precludes them from announcing their candidates, and from going out and meeting voters.
The lack of any understanding about the parties perpetuates the distrust between citizens and parties, said Nasser Chadiriji, the head of the National Democratic Party.
"If I were to vote for a list, when would I find out who is on the list?" asked Ahmed Abu Hiba, a Sunni from Fallujah. "I would participate, but I don't know the people."
Chadiriji said two of his party's 48 candidates resigned Friday after receiving death threats; the remaining are afraid to leave their homes.
He thinks every participant should have eight guards around him before announcing his candidacy. But he said his party couldn't afford such protection for all its candidates.
"Most of the parties, especially those that don't have militias, can't campaign," Chadiriji said.
Some of the sectarian split is fueled by the growing difference in experiences for Sunnis and Shiites leading up to the election, residents said. Shiite parties have announced more of the candidates on their lists and have encouraged more voter participation than their Sunni counterparts.
The Sunnis say the violent insurgency has spread into their major strongholds, and that the American attack on Fallujah made it impossible for them to campaign. The major Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, withdrew from the election last month, citing security problems among its voters.
"How can elections be held where whole towns have been wiped out?" asked Ibrahim Abdullah, 25, a Sunni student at Baghdad University who lives in Fallujah and who thinks the United States wants the Sunnis to lose. "The winner will be carried in by the Americans."
Most people don't understand how the elections will work, where they'll vote or even what they're voting for, al Ruwaee said, forcing them to turn to their religious leaders for guidance.
"To a lot of people, the process is unclear. A lot of people think we are voting for a president, not a national assembly," he said. "I had to do my own research to understand the process myself."
Some remain optimistic that nationalism, which grew during Iraq's more prosperous economic years and continued through Saddam's leadership, will keep sectarianism from becoming a permanent part of Iraqi politics.
Sunnis and Shiites "are like the Tigris and the Euphrates; no matter how separated we are, in the end, we meet," said Zahnab Ahmed, 22, a Shiite from Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.