With landmark elections coming up on Sunday in Iraq, Iraqis still have strikingly different views on the vote. The widest gap is between the Shiites and Sunni Arabs, the two most dominant Muslim groups in the country. Shiites, who make up the majority of the people in Iraq but suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein, are overwhelmingly in favor of participating in the elections. The Sunnis, who used to be the ruling elite during Saddam's regime but now fear being marginalized, are overwhelmingly against it. And that is stoking fears that the ballot may end up being the catalyst for greater violence to come.
Gathering friends and family together for afternoon tea at their house in a Baghdad suburb, Shiite businessman Abdullah Hatem and his wife, Sousen Abdullah, launch into a discussion about what it means to vote in Sunday's elections.
Even though this first balloting in post-Saddam Iraq will choose a new interim assembly and not a permanent government, Iraqi Shiite leaders view it as a make-or-break opportunity to secure their place atop Iraqi politics as leaders of the country's dominant but long-suffering majority.
Abdullah Hatem, on the other hand, views the elections from a more personal perspective. He says taking part in the elections will be his first step toward gaining the dignity and freedom he never had under Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship. "Of course I'll go to vote," he said. "This is the day we've been waiting for - to vote freely. In the past, in previous elections you didn't know the names of people on the ballot. There were no names."
A family friend, Laila Ali Hamood, still cries whenever she thinks about her long-lost brother. She says he was just 21 years-old and preparing to get married when Saddam's security men came to the house one night and took him away for no reason. Mrs. Hamood never saw him again. "These tears represent our victory over the previous regime…Our whole family was destroyed. What we lost we can never get back," she said.
But Abdullah Hatem's wife, Sousen Abdullah, says she believes Sunday's vote will make a difference for the future of not only Shiites, but every Iraqi. She says as democracy takes root in Iraq, it will help make certain that dictators like Saddam can never again seize power to oppress them. "I will take part in these elections. Even if these elections cost me my life. I believe in elections and I believe in our destiny. The elections are giving Iraqis their dignity back. I hope that all Iraqi people will participate in this process," she said.
But that hope is clearly not shared among some Sunni Muslims in Iraq, who make up the core of the nearly two year-old insurgency.
In stark contrast to Abdullah Hatem's family and friends, university students Barrah and Ibrahim Mohammed were extremely reluctant to appear on camera. The brothers, who are Sunni Muslims, talk nervously about militants warning them not to speak to western media and to boycott the elections on Sunday or risk death at the polls.
The oldest, Barrah Mohammed, says he won't vote, not because of the threats, but because prominent Sunni clerics have told their followers that taking part in the elections will only lead to an unfair vote for the Sunni people. "Like Shiites follow their leader we also follow our leaders and our leaders say that this election is illegal - this is our right. I don't expect anything will come out of this election. So I won't vote," he said.
In the past several months, insurgents aiming to derail the elections have created chaos in predominantly Sunni areas in the north, west, and central parts of the country. U.S. and Iraqi officials concede that four of Iraq's 18 provinces, home to more than 40 percent of the country's population of 26 million, are not safe for voting on Sunday.
Younger brother Ibrahim says he believes the balloting should be postponed until the security improves. "We have several conditions that need to be addressed. First of all a timeline needs to be put on the American withdrawal. Second, we need to reconsider certain parts of the constitution. In addition to this, the elections need to be free, and fair and credible and these factors are not present in these elections," he said.
The Bush administration says it is concerned about the possibility of a large Sunni boycott, which could fuel a greater Sunni rebellion. But President Bush says the elections must be held on time in order to give voice to the vast majority of Iraqis, including Shiites and Kurds, who do want to vote on Sunday.