Though it's the site of one of the world's earliest civilizations, in modern times, Iraq perhaps is best known for having one of the most brutally repressive dictatorships of the last half century.
Middle East analysts are concerned that decades of dictatorial rule by President Saddam Hussein have deprived Iraq's various religious and ethnic groups of building democratic traditions that could help them work together in times of war and its aftermath. Some analysts believe these groups in Iraq may seek greater autonomy from a central government in a post-war Baghdad.
They say if the country's ethnic groups fail to cooperate in a post-war Iraq, it could endanger stability in the country. That's because the three main ethnic groups -- Iraqi Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Shi'a Muslims -- could wind up in a power struggle once the Iraqi strongman is removed from power.
Because Iraq's security forces are so extensive and permeate virtually every aspect of life in Iraqi society, Hatem Mukhlis of the opposition group the Iraqi National Movement says Saddam Hussein has imprisoned the entire country.
He says there are also fears of revenge killings, particularly in the Shi'a-dominated south where the Iraqi regime killed about 300,000 people in a massive Shi'a revolt in 1991. "Every family had a taste of what Saddam has done," he said. "And seeking revenge could become the norm in Iraq and that definitely could become detrimental to all of the efforts that we have to bring Iraqis together. The mother of all fears is another dictator."
The Shi'a Arabs in the south are the majority in Iraq, making up 60 percent of the population. The Sunnis in central Iraq, of which Saddam Hussein is a member, make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, as do the Kurds in the north.
Some analysts say a democratic government would give more power to the Iraqi Shi'as, who are a majority in 10 of country's 18 administrative districts. While it would make sense to give more power to the majority, says Rend Rahim Francke, who runs the human rights group the Iraqi Foundation, it could cause problems. "We are calling for democracy and the danger there is that democracy begins to be perceived as a veil for Shiite dominion," she said. "In other words, we are replacing the monopoly of one sect over the state by the monopoly of another sect. We are defining majority in religious and sectarian terms. We are not defining political majority in terms of political issues."
And, according to Ms. Francke, a political majority is key to democracy. "The difference between a political majority and a religious majority is that a political majority can always change. Such a political party can be a majority today and not be a majority tomorrow. But when you base it on religion or ethnicity, then it is immutable and that is the antithesis to what a democracy is supposed to be."
Others agree that equality among all ethnic groups is essential to a united Iraq. Jihan Hajibadri is an Iraqi Kurd and a scholar of conflict resolution at American University. She says the root causes of conflict stem from one group imposing their identity on the rest. "There is a need for changing the norms and institutions in Iraq," she says. "The identity of one group should not be imposed on the rest and there should be a fair power-sharing among all Iraqis. All Iraqis should be allowed to practice their cultural, religious and ethnic origins in addition to their political rights."
Before 1920, the Iraqis were members of three Ottoman Empire provinces. Historically, they identified themselves first as Muslims and then as subjects of the distant Sultan in Istanbul.
According to the British scholar Sami Zubaida, authority in most matters was exercised by "more or less self-sufficient communities ruled by their own forces."
After World War I, the Ottoman state unraveled and the fractured communities of what became Iraq were pulled together by a British-imposed monarchy.
However, the fundamental components of Iraq remained. Wealth and possessions were held by the family. This encouraged marriage among cousins and other relations, intensifying family bonds.
But analysts say chief among secular political forces affecting the new Iraqi state was Arab nationalism - the idea of an independent Arab state made up of all the Arabs.
The Ba'ath party, of which Saddam Hussein is a ruler, embraced this idea calling for a secular Arab nation rather than one defined by Islam.
Today, most Iraqi dissidents outside of the country are still debating what role Arab nationalism should play in a post-war Iraq.
The Iraqi Foundation's Rend Rahim Francke, an Arab Shi'a, is a proponent of building a national political identity. But she believes Arab nationalism should not be at the center of this identity. "In many ways, I think because the Arabs are a majority, it is up to the Arabs to make a partnership in Iraq attractive to the Kurds and the Assyrians and the Turkomans," she said. "I, as an Arab, feel it is my responsibility to entice and invite and make Iraq hospitable. At the same time, I also think that if any group in Iraq feels it should secede, and it has rightful aspirations, then I think it is legitimate."
Amatzia Baram, a leading authority on Iraq at Haifa University in Israel, adds that a dose of Arab nationalism could be a stabilizing factor in Iraq. "An Arab identity by some 80 percent of Iraqis is not only legitimate, it's good. People need identity and they have identity. But the question is, what do you do with it? Are you turning it into a weapon to intervene in Syria or Egypt? Or are you making it into a cultural identity component which is very important for every person?"
Hatem Mukhlis and other Iraqi exiles are concerned that a U.S. plan to install a military governor for perhaps a year or more in post-war Iraq could be fraught with risk.
A few weeks ago, representatives of the Bush administration explained to a U-S Senate panel a plan for rebuilding Iraq as a democracy. The plan calls for revised laws and a constitution. It also calls for the establishment of "advisory committees" made up of repatriated Iraqi exiles, as well as bureaucrats, professionals and local leaders to advise U-S Army General Tommy Franks during the military occupation.
Iraqi exiles say they find disturbing what they see as a lack of discussion on the organization of Iraq's social structure. Iraqi National Movement's Hatem Mukhlis says "once this issue of the weapons of mass destruction is done, the United States could leave us and leave the job half done and that will take us back to either chaos or another dictator."
Mr. Mukhlis urges the quick establishment of security. Otherwise, he said, "the birth of a mob situation" would be triggered by a "lack of authority in a post-Saddam era."
Despite all the divisions among the ethnic groups, most analysts say the outcome of the debate is promising if only for one reason: All the participants appear convinced that Iraq must break with the despotic tradition established under Saddam Hussein. They all share one slogan: democracy.