If only Iraqis vote their conscience

As Iraq's elections inexorably approach, one of two scenarios will soon play out. Either the Iraqi people will come together to overcome the violence and assume a historically unprecedented level of control over their collective future, or the violence will derail Sunday's elections, making the results at best a sidebar to an ever bloodier Sunni insurgency.

The stark possibilities, and the near impossibility of the first scenario coming to pass, were set in place in the earliest days of the occupation. Much attention has been devoted to the Bush administration's numerous errors - particularly disbanding the Iraqi Army and not putting enough US forces on the ground - that encouraged chaos and violence. But it was similarly clear when I traveled through Iraq last spring that an equally disastrous decision - to use mass violence rather than mass civil protest to confront the occupation - had been approved at the highest levels of the Sunni establishment.

It seems that the ideologues of the insurgency were as clueless about the Bush administration's willingness to use large-scale violence to pacify Iraq as the Bush administration was about the willingness and ability of insurgents to use - and religious leaders to sanction - extreme violence. In effect, a combination of ignorance and arrogance led each side to create the same "golem" - violence - to protect and advance its interests. And, like the monster in the old Jewish folk tale, while originally created to protect and serve its community, the Sunni and American golems have become uncontrollable. Because neither side seems capable of or interested in taking on the golems, the question has become whether the Iraqi people surprise the world and use the elections to run them out of town.

Aside from the need for a respectable Sunni turnout, the answer will depend largely on the breakdown of voting - specifically, the participation of three overlapping population subsets: women, secular voters, and nonsectarian voters. (Nonsectarians are those who view themselves as Iraqi rather than narrowly as Sunni, Shiite, or Kurdish.) All three groups have been largely shut out of the public sphere during the past year.

The violence and chaos of postoccupation Iraq have imprisoned women in their homes. This, in a country that not long ago boasted a female population among the most socially advanced in the developing world. Whether staunchly secular or more traditionally religious, most Iraqi women I've met are adamant that they're not interested in trading the social rights of the previous regime for a democracy that could easily lead to their marginalization. Yet while electoral rules stipulate that every third candidate on party or coalition lists be a woman, if women are too scared to vote or otherwise prevented from doing so, their elected representatives will have little power.

Similarly, until the Gulf War, Iraq was one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world. However, a decade of international sanctions, and Saddam Hussein's patronage of Sunni religious institutions and repression of Shiites left no ground in which a secular post-Baathist political culture could take root. The situation was exacerbated by the violence of the occupation, which has made it easier for Shiite Sadrists and Sunni jihadis to march through the streets chanting "death to Israel and America" than for secular groups to hold rallies in support of a democratic, pluralistic, and politically secular Iraq.

Finally, despite the potentially divisive ethnoreligious makeup of Iraq, for most of the past 80 years Kurds, Sunni, and Shiite Arabs have sustained a surprisingly resilient and deep national identity. This identity ultimately drove the British out in 1932 and saw Shiites fight alongside Sunnis in the gruesome war with Iran in the 1980s. Despite the best efforts of the Hussein regime to drive wedges between the three groups (such as by acts of genocide against Kurds and Shiites) and now the - largely successful - attempt by the US to transform an Arab revolt into a more manageable Sunni revolt, most Iraqis prefer to remain united under one sovereign government than to break apart into what surely would be three unsustainable statelets.

But here again, the violence is making it hard to build a common, multiethnic, and post-sectarian political movement. Beyond the direct attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents against Kurds and Shiites, the difficulty of moving between communities and the impossibility of holding public campaign rallies are preventing millions of Iraqis of different backgrounds from coming together for a common political goal; this despite the reality that centuries of living together has produced millions whose heritage is both Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Kurdish. The violence, closed public sphere, and power of ethnic and sectarian parties are major impediments to Iraqis voting their Iraqi, rather than a more narrowly defined, conscience.

Of course, with some 230 parties and 80 electoral blocs registered and a clear distrust for large authoritarian parties (that's what the Baath Party was, after all), Iraqis might still elect an assembly with enough independent and nonsectarian members to forge the national consensus necessary to write a new constitution. Let's hope for such an outcome. If it doesn't, the blame will be shared by the golems and their creators, in Washington and Fallujah alike.

Mark LeVine is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and is author of 'Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil.'

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