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Ethnic divisions laid bare in post-election Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two weeks of intense insurgent violence have made it crystal clear that Iraq's parliamentary elections, hailed in late January as a triumph for democracy, haven't helped to heal the country's deep divisions. They may have made them worse.

The historic election sheared off a thin facade of wartime national unity and reinforced ethnic and sectarian tensions that have plagued Iraq for centuries. Iraqis immediately began playing the roles the election results delivered to them: victorious Shiite Muslim, assertive Kurd, disaffected Sunni Arab. Within those groups lies a mosaic of other splits, especially between secularists and Islamists vying for Iraq's soul.

With little social cohesion, violence has soared, fueled by anger over foreign occupation and religious differences, while a semi-sovereign, disjointed government has taken over with little ability to control or appeal to groups behind the killings. At least 400 Iraqis have died in two weeks. U.S. casualties are also up. According to, a Web site that tracks Iraq coalition casualties, 46 American service members died under fire in April, and 28 have died so far in May.

The heady, hopeful days surrounding the election seem more distant with each early-morning explosion that rouses Baghdad with the reliability of an alarm clock.

"Elections were a start, but it was a start with flaws," said Rassim al-Awadi of the Iraqi National Accord, the party led by former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "It has resulted in many mistakes ... when you look on the good side, nobody can say these people were not elected. But it did categorize us into Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds. Period."

It wasn't supposed to have been this way.

The elections, U.S. and Iraqi officials pledged, would empower war-weary citizens to determine their own future after decades of tyranny. Shiite parties were predicted to win, but with enough checks and balances from secularists to keep conservatives' dreams of an Iran-style theocracy at bay. There would be a national assembly that represented even the most obscure sect—a multiethnic, multiparty system to teach the rest of the Middle East a lesson.

Election day itself was remarkable: Entire families walked to the polls, dipped their fingers in purple ink and voted. Children played in the streets, journalists roamed freely and election monitors reported no major violations. With bombers thwarted by a ban on cars and American forces keeping a respectful distance, the day belonged to Iraqis.

Just not to all of them. When the ballots were collected, about 58 percent of eligible voters had made it to the polls. In the other 42 percent were most Sunni Arabs, who stayed away because of a boycott or the fear of insurgent retaliation. Now their 20 percent of the population is grossly underrepresented in the government.

The majority Shiites and the Kurds, by far the biggest vote-getters, rejoiced with street parties and proclamations of a new era led by those who suffered the most under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Sunnis were left with almost no political representation, renewed U.S. military offensives in their territories and a humiliating reversal of fortune. Insurgent leaders immediately seized on the Sunni disenfranchisement. They stirred up sectarian emotions with a propaganda campaign that focused not only on the sidelining of Sunnis, but also their replacement at the head of government by Shiites with close ties to archenemy Iran.

The Sunni insurgency released videos and audio recordings warning that "resistance fighters" were the only ones who could kick out the occupying Americans, upend the Shiite government and restore Sunni pride.

"Sunnis are the most scared now," said Salman al-Jumaili, a Sunni political analyst at Baghdad University. "Decision-making lies with one sect (the Shiites). And we don't only have a sectarian government, we have an extremist Islamist one, too. We went from having a single dictator to many," referring to Shiite religious leaders.

The newly elected government countered with a plan that seemed savvy and charitable, at least in theory. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, announced that they'd hand key Cabinet positions to their disenchanted Sunni Arab countrymen. But the question became: Which Sunnis?

There were token Sunnis in the United Iraqi Alliance, the mostly Shiite vehicle to power for al-Jaafari and his allies. There were some wealthy Sunnis aligned with the secular ticket led by Allawi. There were militant Sunnis from the Muslim Scholars Association, which often is portrayed as the political front for the insurgency. There were revered tribal leaders and American-friendly provincial governors. There were a few smart, independent Sunnis who'd been on the fringes of the London opposition during the reign of Saddam's Baath Party.

"We in the United Iraqi Alliance feel we did what we promised our Sunni Arab brothers: to let them contribute in the political process," said Ali al-Dabagh, a legislator and spokesman for the alliance. "The truth is, we were dealing with discordant political and clerical groups. Trying to satisfy everybody is not an easy task."

Then an even more formidable Sunni group emerged. It comprised Islamist clerics and secular former Baathists uniting as the Iraqi National Dialogue Council. Unlike the other groups, these Sunnis boasted street credibility and valuable inroads into the nationalist, Iraqi-led resistance movement. If included in the government, Shiite leaders gambled, these men could rein in the homegrown insurgency, allowing U.S. and Iraqi forces to concentrate on the deadlier, al-Qaida-backed movement.

But they had to work fast because Iraqi—and the Bush administration's—patience was wearing thin. Several weeks after the elections, al-Jaafari and the Dialogue Council began intense negotiations. The council offered candidate after candidate, only to have each rejected by Shiites and Kurds who objected to the potential ministers' past affiliation with the Baath Party. The talks deadlocked, leaving vacancies in al-Jaafari's Cabinet a full three months after Iraqis risked their lives to vote.

"There's no doubt that the true national Iraqi resistance will be inflamed if the Sunnis are marginalized and oppressed," said Fakhri al-Qaisi of the Dialogue Council. "This is the resistance that, without any foreign influence, will help to liberate Iraq (from American occupation) and to support and strengthen its people."

The day after the Dialogue Council's negotiations ended, insurgents launched a rampage of car bombings that were among the bloodiest post-election attacks. Now, a week after al-Jaafari finally furnished his Cabinet with Sunni politicians—none from the Dialogue Council—the bombings continue and sectarian violence has erupted on college campuses, in religious schools, across farmlands and in marketplaces.

The American military has pinned its departure from Iraq on how long it takes to build a viable Iraqi security force. That will take years, politicians have said, but not nearly as long as it could take for Iraq to recover from an identity crisis that, left unchecked, could lead to civil war. Many Sunnis as well as Shiites hope the next elections, slated for December, will better represent Iraqis and lead to power-sharing that could help heal the divisions.

"There is a race for time between political parties and terrorists," said Haider Musawi of the Iraqi National Congress, a secular party led by former exile Ahmad Chalabi. "While the parties are trying to reconcile and reach an agreement among themselves, terrorists are trying to escalate the situation among the different factions in Iraqi society, targeting all of us: the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Yasser Salihee, Shatha al Awsy, Mohammed al Awsy, Alaa Majeed and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)