Democracy's no guarantee a country won't end up in civil war, as Americans know. Iraq can defy its own compulsion to split apart, however, if today's election, the first for a full-term parliament since the US invasion, produces winners who are unifiers.
Most candidates running for Iraq's 275 seats have slotted themselves with parties claiming to represent the interests of narrow religious or ethnic groups - Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis, mainly. These groups' interests really aren't served, though, if they simply are grabbing for power with little regard for keeping Iraq whole and largely secular.
Democracy in Iraq, while stronger with this third election, is still too weak for the kind of full-throated partisan electoral politics that stable democracies like the US can endure. Some Lincolnesque figures need to rise, or be raised, to the top.
Shiites, especially, may think they're now due their natural majority dominance after a long repression. Kurds may think they're owed semi-independence having suffered under Saddam Hussein. The minority Sunnis, who enjoyed prominence under Mr. Hussein, may fear being suppressed under a tyranny of Shiite masses and simply need some electoral power for survival.
Those are all valid concerns, but they aren't the ultimate context for anyone engaging in this election. on the face of it, voters and candidates - simply by stepping into this exercise - are quietly acknowledging that Iraq needs unity through democracy. And deep down, that's why many Iraqis are saying privately they are attracted to a party known as the Iraqi National List.
It's led by the recent prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a former exile and a Shiite who fled Iraq after working in Hussein's Sunni-led government. He's not without flaws, in many Iraqi eyes. He's pro-US and helped the US in a controversial attack on the city of Fallujah. He's domineering, a characteristic many associate with Hussein, but which many also say the country needs right now.
But Mr. Allawi's rallying cry is unity and tolerance. He demonstrates it by embracing all religious and ethnic groups under the principle of inclusive, secular politics. In the January election for an interim parliament, his party won 40 of the 275 seats, with 14 percent of the vote. Gaining more than those numbers this time will be a bellwether on whether the first concern of Iraqis is Iraq.
Even if Allawi and others like him do well, pressures for disunity remain strong. The Constitution was written with a strong anticentral government theme, mainly to avoid another Hussein. Unless altered, it will allow regional powerhouses. The US-trained Iraq Army, while showing nascent professionalism, has yet to be tested in obeying civilian Iraqi leadership in difficult attacks on insurgents or local militias, and in not fracturing along communal lines.
In short, this election, while not necessarily a turning point in President Bush's vision of a mantlepiece democracy in the Middle East, is at least a test of citizenship and national integrity for Iraq, especially with Sunnis voting in large numbers.
Iraq's rebirth isn't mainly a chance for each group to finally get its due. Pan-Iraq political forces must gain enough sway to avoid a civil war.