Following last week's withdrawal from the elections of the largest Iraqi Sunni Muslim party, divisions have deepened in the country over the question of whether to hold the elections on January 30 as scheduled. Some moderate Shiite politicians are so alarmed by the rising sectarian tension in the country, they are now joining moderate Sunni Arabs in calling for a delay in the elections.
If Iraqi Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is to be believed, his Shiite-led coalition group, the United Iraqi Alliance, could win this month's elections by a landslide with some 80 percent of the votes.
Shiites make up at least 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. And they are eager to exercise that political power, which was long repressed under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Shiites may form a large majority but they are just one of many groups who make up Iraq's ethnic and religious mosaic. On January 30, all Iraqis are supposed to go to the polls to elect a representative assembly, which will choose a new interim government and draft a constitution.
But that hope is dimming amid signs that many Sunni Arabs, the second biggest group in the country, may not take part in Iraq's first free elections.
Last week, the largest mainstream Sunni party to have entered the race withdrew because it said security conditions were too poor to permit fair elections in Sunni-dominated regions. Citing similar problems, some Sunni political groups have chosen not to register and are calling for a boycott.
A spokesman for the mainstream Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, Ammar Wajeeh, says most Sunnis are still hoping for a delay in the elections.
"The security situation is still bad, as you know," he said. "We think that the situation in general is improper [for elections]. We haven't enough time and freedom to make advertisements because of the situation. We shall not join again as long as the time of the election will be the 30th of January."
Making up a fifth of Iraq's 26 million people, Sunni Arabs have traditionally dominated Iraq politically and were the backbone of Saddam's dictatorship.
They now fear an almost certain majority Shiite win at the polls, a fear that is helping fuel the Saddam loyalists and Sunni Muslim extremists who are waging a violent insurgency in Baghdad and in areas north and west of the capital to derail the elections.
Without the participation of the Sunnis, international observers have warned that the elections may be considered illegitimate and provide even more fuel for a greater Sunni rebellion.
On Sunday, another prominent Shiite member of the United Iraqi Alliance, Sheik Humam Hamoudy, reached out to Sunni Arabs, calling for talks to avert a sectarian conflict.
Mr. Hamoudy says his party endorses calls by some Shiites, including Iraqi Planning Minister Mehdi al-Hafedh, to hold a national reconciliation conference ahead of the elections. But the sheik says Sunnis with ties to Saddam's Baath Party would not be welcome at the talks.
The demand to exclude Baath party members leaves little room for compromise. Sunnis point out that most jobs in Saddam's government required party membership, and being a Baathist does not mean that the person participated in Saddam's atrocities against the Shiites or any other groups.
The Sunnis are nervous that the Shiites, who see the elections as a historic opportunity to reverse decades of oppression by Iraq's Sunni rulers, will exact revenge.
Although they will almost certainly win the election, Shiite leaders promise to include Sunnis in their government. They have rejected Sunni calls to delay the elections, saying the move will only encourage the insurgents and postpone Iraq's progress toward stability and reconstruction.
That is also the position of the country's most revered Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is supporting the United Iraqi Alliance Party.
Speaking through a spokesman on state-run television Saturday, the reclusive Mr. Sistani reminded his followers that he expected every one of them to cast a vote on election day.
In 30 days, the ayatollah said, we will have the opportunity to give birth to a new state and we expect everyone to participate in this momentous and important phase of our history.
President Bush and the Iraqi interim government have also rejected calls to delay the elections. But with time running out, some moderate Shiites are saying that it may be better to delay than to hold flawed elections.
Ghassan al-Atiyah is a former exile and a political analyst, who has established a secular, multi-ethnic party to contest the elections. He says he favors delaying the elections until a large group of moderate Sunnis can be brought in to help calm sectarian tensions.
"Now, we are at a critical juncture. If we go to elections, this will simply consolidate the division in our society. With the Sunni Arabs isolated, this is a recipe for a disaster," he said.
Mr. Atiyah says his solution is not to isolate but to engage the Sunnis who are feeling marginalized.
"We have to widen the middle ground among Iraqi society, the moderate middle ground. What we've tried to do is to open a dialogue with moderate elements in the resistance. We are trying to convince them, 'Try to present your political views. And if delay is a must, it should be part of a package, a delay for two or three months provided that you are able to stop the violence or at least reduce it by 80 percent.' The negotiation will be a political one," he said.
Mr. Atiyah says he fears that post-election Iraq may be just as violent and divided, if moderates do not work together to try to bridge the widening sectarian gap.
In a grim warning which supports Mr. Atiyah's fears, Mr. Wajeeh of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party says no Sunni will accept the results of elections that did not include them.