With Iraqis electing their first democratic four-year government, attention is shifting to what the country's long-term political landscape might look like. Much attention has been focused on defeating or placating Iraq's mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency. But there is growing concern about the role of some segments of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, which is expected to hold power in the new government - segments that have already shown their willingness to use violence to get what they want.
In recent weeks, U.S. and Iraqi troops have found two highly-publicized secret prisons where more than 100 mostly Sunni Muslim Iraqi prisoners were allegedly abused and tortured. The prisons were operated by Iraq's Interior Ministry, under Minister Bayan Jabr, a key figure in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The party was based in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, and still has close ties to the Islamic Republic. It has a military wing known as the Badr Brigade, which has been accused of controlling the secret prisons.
The ministry has pledged to investigate whether there are more secret torture prisons, and U.S. officials say the discovery of the second prison was evidence of that effort. But some experts are concerned that the prisons are an indication of the ruthlessness with which Mr. Jabr and his allies would operate if a new Shi'ite-controlled Iraqi government allowed them to. "This is a problem that was on the horizon a year and a half ago, and it's much more severe now," he said.
That is Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He worked at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad early last year, and came away a strong critic of U.S. policy in Iraq. He wrote a book called "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq." He sees what he calls the "anti-democratic" views of the Badr group as one of the most serious threats to Iraq's future. "If we don't find a way to deal with this, protest it, contain it and stand up to it, we'll have a new form of authoritarianism in the country, and one clearly linked to the extreme elements in the authoritarian regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said.
But not all experts are quite so worried. "It would be wise for anyone to have concern, but there's no cause for alarm," said associate professor Alan Godlas, who teaches religion at the University of Georgia, and is the director of a center for the study of Islam at the school. He says the Shi'ite Islamic philosophy created by Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini, in which religious leaders take a political role, is represented in Iraq by people like Interior Minister Jabr and his party. But the professor believes they are a minority among Iraq's Shiites.
"There are a number of influences in this newly emerging democratic Iraq. And since it's a democracy, the Interior Ministry does have some political support. That is one faction. But it's not the majority," he said.
Professor Godlas says that, and the repression Iraqis experienced in recent decades, should lead them to create a society that respects human rights. But he acknowledges there will be bumps along the road. "Having gone through the tortures, the Iraqis are very sensitive to wanting to avoid having a government that's going to be violating human rights. Nevertheless, given the volatile situation we can expect that there will be abuses. I think we should be horrified at any reports of torture, but I'm optimistic that these will be exceptions," he said.
The chief spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, Lawrence DiRita, has the same expectation. "The president said from the beginning that one of the principles that the United States feels is important for the future of Iraq is that it be a country whose government respects human rights, and that treats its people properly. There's no reason to think that the government constituted by the Iraqi people, who lived through this terrible period where that wasn't true, won't be that kind of government," he said.
Mr. DiRita says Iraqi leaders have made clear their intention to make respect for human rights a key part of the society they plan to build.
President Bush himself spoke about the importance of tolerance and respect for human rights in Iraq in some of the recent speeches he has made about the country's future. This week, he said only a society in which there is respect and compassion for all citizens can prevail, and he sees only one way for Iraq to achieve that. "Only democracy can bring freedom and reconciliation to Iraq, and peace to this troubled part of the world," he said.
Larry Diamond at Stanford University is not sure whether this election will bring "freedom and reconciliation to Iraq." He says a lot of hard work lies ahead for U.S. officials in nurturing democratic institutions in the country. "We need to seek broad-based power sharing in the new government, so that all major parties are at the table. I don't think it's a lost cause, but it is a dangerous situation. We need to use our leverage and our moral authority to stand up to this and insist that anti-democratic elements do not seize control of the new Iraqi state. I think it's going to be very difficult to do," he said.
Mr. Diamond says it will be difficult in part because he expects Minister Jabr's party to do very well in the election. He is particularly concerned about what he calls Iran's "pervasive and pernicious" effort to work through such groups -- using money, training and political guidance -- to try to influence Iraq's future.