Best friends Ali Zaydun and Jamal Hammudi have been playing dominoes on Friday nights for years. But now Ali is unable to visit his friend's house, because the Sunni Al Dora neighborhood is unsafe for the two Shiites (whose last names have been changed to protect their identities).
Ali seethes at "a situation we never had before in Iraq," and says he blames the country's Shiite-dominated government. As a result, the young computer programmer supports the secular alliance of former prime minister Ayad Allawi in upcoming national elections. "Believe me," he says, "I hope every day Allawi can win and make one Iraq instead of all these separations of the people."
Like Ali, more Iraqis appear to be turning to one of the Dec. 15 election's secular parties as the best alternative for a unified and stable Iraq. Mostly it's better educated Iraqis or those from smaller ethnic groups who are making this choice, so their prospects for equaling the voting power of Iraqis following the electoral directives of religious leaders remains unclear.
But some of Iraq's top leaders say that the single most important choice Iraqis will make in the December vote will be between a secular and modernizing government and a religious-based one. The fact that Iraqis will be choosing their first permanent four-year government since Saddam Hussein's fall only adds to the significance, they say.
"This contest between the secular and religious visions of government is really the main choice to be made," says Adnan Pachachi, a prominent Sunni statesman who has joined Mr. Allawi's Iraqi National list. "It won't be decided in one election, but it is a basic choice between an open and progressive Iraq and one that is backward and continues to fall behind."
"Yes, there is an Islamic identity to the people of Iraq and their history," he adds. "But the question is if we will be Islamic in identity and modern and open, or more like countries where religion plays a more important governing role, like Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia. Those examples are not very inspiring."
Allawi - a secular Shiite and former Baathist turned Saddam opponent and CIA favorite, before being named prime minister in July 2004 - would appear to face an uphill battle. As prime minister he governed during intense battles in Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad's poor Sadr City slum, infuriating some key groups. His government was also accused of corruption. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified former Prime Minister Allawi's sect.]
In January's elections for a provisional government, Allawi only scored about 14 percent of the vote - compared with 51 percent for the "Shiite House" coalition that eventually formed the government that rules today.
The new government coming out of this month's elections will have to be able to win a two-thirds vote of the new parliament to be installed.
No one expects any one group to win even a majority of seats.
And even if the governing Shiite coalition registers a decline in support as anticipated, no one expects them to fall below a third - which means Allawi would have to attract moderate Shiite support in the new parliament to be named prime minister.
But observers say Allawi has several factors going for him now - in addition to the growing fears of rising sectarianism.
First, the nine-month-old government has disappointed even many Shiites, who find it has been incompetent and unable to even begin addressing Iraqis' key concerns of security and employment.
Second, the country's sizable Sunni minority has been registering in large numbers and is expected to vote this time around, unlike in January when they largely sat out the vote.
The dire and unchanged lack of security for average Iraqis will likely encourage voters to favor someone they consider to be a strongman, and that will help Allawi, some experts say.
"Some people associate Mr. Allawi with strength, so that and the fact that he does not talk like a sectarian may convince people he is better than the others," says Nabeal Younis, a senior lecturer in public policy at Baghdad University.
Mr. Younis also says that one of the reasons some Iraqis see Allawi as a strongman - the battles for major cities that occurred during his government - will also hurt him.
"People don't forget his attacks on Fallujah and Najaf and Sadr City," says Younis.
Indeed, during a visit to the Shiite holy city of Najaf Sunday, Allawi said that about 60 men armed with pistols, knives, and swords planned to attack him.
He said the attempt was made while he was performing prayers at the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the Shiites' holiest in Iraq.
"They were planning to kill the whole delegation, or at least me," Allawi told reporters shortly after he arrived back in Baghdad.
Footage shown on television stations showed Allawi running from the shrine as shoes and stones were thrown at him.
Younis also points out that Allawi's connection to the American occupation remains a liability.
"People don't want the influence of Iran, which is why they are turning away from the current government," he says, "but they also don't want someone who is working for the American occupation."
If Sunnis vote in large numbers, says Younis, himself a Sunni assisting a list of Sunni candidates, it will be "as a way to precipitate the end of the occupation."
But Younis says Iraqis will also be voting for a unified Iraq, for a true national army and not an army consisting of party and tribal militias as he says now exists. And if that is indeed motivating Iraqis, it would seem to help Allawi, who emphasizes national unity over party and secular identification.
Allawi justifies the battle of Fallujah - which was actually decided by American forces - by insisting that it was actually Fallujans who implored him to do something about the strengthening dictatorship of Islamist extremists, foreign and national, in their city.
Allawi supporters also point out that such battles (both in Sunni Fallujah and Shiite Najaf, for example) were really about restoring central-government order over sectarian rebellions. It's an explanation that appears to play well with many nationalist Iraqis.
At the same time, Allawi emphasizes that the ministers in his government were not selected by him but as part of a political balancing act performed by the Americans.
Still, not all of the Dec. 15 election's secularists have joined the Allawi fold.
"I told [Allawi] that history will remember his government for the attacks [on rebellious Iraqi cities] and for the terrible corruption," says Hatem Mukhis, secretary general of the secular Iraqi National Movement and a Sunni. "But this [current] government has been even more corrupt, so that their atrocities and human rights violations have managed to obliterate the dark image of the Allawi government."
Still, like Mr. Pachachi, he says this election will decide the "tilt" of Iraq. And since he says another "religious government" would be "the worst disaster we face," he would consider having his movement join an Allawi coalition after the elections.
Another factor uniting Iraq's secularists is an insistence that Iraq develop a strong national army - and not an army of militias with party or tribal loyalties. That is the only way Iraq will be able to solve the problem of the occupation and avoid civil war, they say.
"No one believes we have a national army now, it is only a collection of militias with differing loyalties," says Younis. "Only by bringing back a true national army will we be able to have a unified Iraq."
Pachachi agrees, placing Iraqi unity under one national army just under secular governance in importance. "It won't be a question of how well-trained or well-equipped the army is but one of the authority it serves," he says.
"If the security forces continue to be dominated as they are now by political groups or sects, then the people won't trust in them - and the result will be civil war or fragmentation of the country," says Pachachi.