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Iraq Mired in Division as Year Comes to an End

Iraqis went to the polls for the third time in December, bringing an end to a year in which the process of building a new, democratic, post-Saddam Iraq has raised more alarm than optimism in the war-torn country.

For most Iraqis, who once went to the polls to do nothing more than approve Saddam Hussein's regime, 2005 was a year of unprecedented political freedom.

No longer oppressed by Sunni Muslims as they had been under Saddam's rule, Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority and minority Kurds were the most enthusiastic about exercising their new rights.

Under U.S. military protection against Sunni insurgent threats to disrupt the vote, millions of them went to the polls in January to elect a new interim government.

Iraq's disgruntled Sunni community, which took up arms against coalition forces to protest the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, also made a political choice. It opted to largely boycott the elections, calling the U.S.-supported political process illegitimate.

Despite the Sunni boycott, January's vote was hailed as a major success and raised hopes that Iraq was on its way toward creating a permanent, broad-based, constitutional government.

But the political momentum was soon lost in intense political infighting among Shi'ites and Kurds, who took three months to form a government and showed little interest in sharing power with Iraq's Sunnis Arabs.

The snub sharply raised sectarian and ethnic tension and gave the Sunni-led insurgency a new push.

Attacks against Shi'ite civilians soon became a near-daily occurrence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Thousands of mostly Shi'ite members of the fledgling U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces were also wounded and killed.

Meanwhile, reports began to surface of Shi'ite militia members forming death squads within elite commando units of Iraq's Shi'ite-controlled ministry of interior. Sunni Arabs said the death squads indiscriminately rounded up, detained, tortured, and killed hundreds of Sunnis for sectarian reasons.

Iraqi experts, like political science professor Nabil Mohammed Salim at Baghdad University, blamed the rising violence on political groups who, he says, openly encourage sectarianism.

He questioned whether it was possible for the country to stay united under leaders who appear to be working for their own political interests rather than the needs of the Iraqi people.

"If all the parties insist on continuing in their policies and measures, I think the future is going to be without hope. They have to devise policies to do something for the people. The people are looking for services. There are no services of any kind. They are looking for security. You cannot say that anybody is secure now," he said.

The biggest task for Iraq's new interim government was to write a new constitution and, under pressure from the United States, the government included moderate Sunni Arabs in the drafting process.

U.S. officials had hoped that Sunni participation in the process could narrow sectarian differences and help quell the insurgency.

But Sunnis could not block the inclusion of a key provision in the document, which gives significant power to regional governments in the oil-rich Kurdish north and the mostly-Shi'ite south.

Arguing that such an arrangement would cut them out of Iraq's oil wealth and divide the country, a large number of Sunni Arabs went to the polls for the first time on October 15th to vote no in a nationwide referendum on the constitution.

The constitution passed by a narrow margin amid Sunni Arab charges of vote-rigging. Still, the majority of Sunnis accepted the referendum result, on the condition that the next parliament would allow lawmakers to look into amending the draft and holding another constitutional referendum.

Hoping to elect enough Sunni lawmakers who could push their case forward, Sunnis joined millions of Shi'ites and Kurds at the polls December 15th to elect a new four-year government.

Many Iraqis, like Baghdad businessman Zaid Sabah, say they believe the country now faces only one of two choices: choosing a path toward a peaceful democracy or moving toward an all-out civil war.

"The civil war will begin because of the attitudes of the political parties. Each political side has its extremist attitude. I am not optimistic and I have no idea about any solution," he said.

There are already signs the elections could usher in a new year of troubles for Iraq.

The main Sunni coalition says it believes the December 15th balloting was tainted by fraud and says it may demand fresh elections in Baghdad, where a Shi'ite religious coalition is holding a much larger than expected lead.