Iraqis go to the polls Thursday, December 15, for the third time this year to elect a parliament that will govern for four years. This will officially end a transitional period that began with the fall of Saddam Hussein two-and-one-half years ago. Among the hundreds of parties competing, four major coalitions have emerged seeking to represent four major groups in the electorate.

The transitional assembly that was elected last January in Iraq was dominated by an alliance of two coalitions. One represented the majority Shi'ite Arab population which won more than half the seats. The other represented the independence-minded Kurdish minority with one-fourth of the seats.

But Sunni Arabs, who represent a quarter of the population, boycotted the elections and won less than a dozen seats. The Sunnis dominated government under deposed President Saddam Hussein and are said to be the backbone of the insurgency that has killed an estimated 30,000 people in the past two years.

But many Sunni leaders have decided to join the electoral process. The leader of their Consensus Front coalition, Adnan al-Duleimy, says a major purpose is to press for the departure of the foreign forces in Iraq. He says, if we can form a government that represents all the Iraqi sects, then we will have a just government with the ability and transparency to make fair policies, not for any one sect, but for all.

And this will help get rid of the foreign occupation.

The Sunnis also want to change Iraq's new constitution, which grants considerable autonomy to Kurdish and Shiite-dominated regions. The Sunnis fear this will lead to the breakup of Iraq. But the Kurds, who suffered under Saddam Hussein, believe that regional autonomy and human rights are vital elements in the charter.

"This is the minimum which we will accept, especially if you look at the rights of the components of the Iraqi population, the Kurds, Arabs and the Shiites," said Deputy Prime Minister Rosch Noori Shaways, who heads the Kurdish coalition. "And then there are minimum rights of democracy and human rights within this constitution. And that is what we want. We do not want to go back."

Politics in the new Iraq have been dominated by religious parties, which were repressed under Saddam Hussein. Non-religious and liberal candidates did not fare well in the first election. But the secularists, as they are often called, have joined together in what they call the National Democratic Coalition, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

One of their leaders, former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, says the other coalitions have left a great gap in the political center which his coalition hopes to fill.

"Most Iraqis do not belong to the religious parties," he said. "Most Iraqi's have independent if not - I do not like to use the word secular because it can be misunderstood - but certainly democratic, liberal tendencies and people do not like, in general, the sectarian divisions as a basis for political activity."

A coalition of Shiite parties won more than half of the seats in the transitional assembly and dominates the current government. It is led by two Islamist-oriented parties, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI.

The chief strategist of the coalition, SCIRI's Saad Jawal Kandeel, says participation by the Sunnis will reduce the number of seats held by the other coalitions, but he does not foresee any major changes in the parliament. "Probably similar things will happen and probably other lists will be added to this alliance and we will see a government of national unity," he said.

Many observers agree, but add that gains by the Sunni and secular coalitions will broaden political representation in parliament and any shift in alliances could bring changes.

Veteran politician Adnan Pachachi says most important is to hold the elections, because democracy is learned through practice. "So we are having our first lessons in democracy and I think the more we practice it the more we will insist on keeping it," he added. "Because, after all, there is no other way for Iraq."

The campaign period has seen a rise in terrorist attacks and tensions between the various political forces. And attacks by militias loyal to various political parties have led some Iraqis to fear that their country is on the verge of civil war. But others hope the violence will subside over time, as Iraqi security forces become better equipped and better trained.