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Two dates are emblematic of Iraq's current descent into chaos and disintegration: December 15, 2005 and February 22, 2006.
On December 15, parliamentary elections were held in Iraq. Helped by a nationwide ban on car traffic, the elections were relatively orderly and, for the first time, members of the Sunni minority, who had boycotted the earlier elections held under US occupation, participated in significant numbers. The US administration hailed them as a success and an important milestone on the road to stabilization and democracy in Iraq.
Reality, however, is different. Looking at the results more carefully, one sees that rather than being an expression of Iraqi democracy they reflect the country's internal religious and ethnic divide. Most Shi'ites voted for the major Shi'ite list; almost all Kurds voted for the Kurdish united coalition, and most Sunnis voted for Sunni lists and candidates.
Far from expressing the free choice of the Iraqi people, the elections showed how helplessly the country is divided along its religious and ethnic fault lines.
Ethnic and religious-bloc voting also suggests how strong local pressure to vote along communal lines must have been. This was not an election expressing freedom; it was a manifestation of ethnic and religious identity and conformism.
The other date - February 22 - saw the blowing up of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, one of the Shi'ites' most sacred shrines, by Sunni terrorists. In retaliation, Shi'ite militias and gangs attacked, burned and pillaged dozens of Sunni mosques in Baghdad and other cities. More than 100 people were killed.
IT IS clear that Iraq, stitched together by British imperialists in the 1920s from three very disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, is not a country any more.
From its inception, the Sunnis ruled it. In this it was not different from most Arab countries. Yet in Iraq the Sunnis were a minority, and hence their hegemony was always opposed by the other oppressed communities - the Shi'ite majority, the Kurdish minority, the Christian Assyrians - who repeatedly rose up in revolt against Sunni hegemony. Saddam's Ba'ath was only the most brutal of these Sunni minority regimes.
It was this Sunni hegemony, and not only Saddam's rule, that was shattered by the American invasion. Coupled with the US insistence on democratization, it meant empowering, for the first time, the Shi'ite majority, relegating the Sunnis to unaccustomed minority status and legitimizing the autonomy, if not de-facto semi-independence, of the Kurds.
It has also been a shock to most Sunni Arab governments, though they are careful not to express it openly.
What we now see in Iraq are the consequences of this major political upheaval. That it was certainly not intended by Washington, blissfully unaware of Iraq's internal ethnic and religious composition, is beside the point. The Shi'ite majority will not give up its newly won hegemony, and their insistence on control of the Ministry of Interior is one aspect of this. Nor will the Kurds give up their mini-state in the north.
As for the Sunnis, they are appearing to continue their armed resistance to these changes through terrorism aimed not only against the US occupiers, but now mainly against Shi'ite and Kurdish holy shrines and organizations.
THERE SEEMS to be no power able to hold Iraq together. Attempts to set up a national unity government, in which all groups will be represented, have failed in the three months since the December elections. Such attempts will probably fail in the future as well, even if they are papered over by some verbal, worthless face-saving formula.
Iraq is going the way of the former Yugoslavia. When ethnic and religious groups are unable and unwilling to live together in a country held together by force and lacking any democratic traditions, disintegration may be the only way out.
Maybe three states in what used to be Iraq have a better chance - as occurred in Yugoslavia - of leading to some stabilization and even democratic development.
By calling the strife in Iraq "sectarian," observers and policymakers are trying to minimize the deep chasms that divide Iraqi society - like calling the bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants in 17th-century Europe "sectarian." But those were not only about theological disagreements; they were about identity, historical narrative and memory.
The sooner one realizes their force - and their legitimacy within their respective communities - the sooner illusions about abstract democracy and non-existing unity can be replaced by more realistic policies.
The writer is professor of political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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