The campaign has begun for December's parliamentary elections in Iraq.  More than 200 political parties have registered, but the contest is expected to be dominated by five major alliances, including several newcomers. 

As Iraqis prepare to go to the polls on December 15 for the third time in less than one year, two major alliances that dominated the transitional government remain largely intact.

The largest of these, the United Coalition, groups a dozen parties of the Shi'ite Arab majority, and won more than half the seats in the transitional parliament.

The Kurdish Alliance, two major parties that won a fourth of the seats, is also fielding a solid list of candidates.

But these two groups face competition from two new alliances, the Concord Front and the United Front, which are formed mostly by Sunni Arabs.  The Sunnis boycotted the January elections, and as a result, played a minor role in drafting the new constitution.

The head of the United Front, Saleh al-Mutlaq, says Sunnis oppose the new charter, and want to participate in government in order to change it.  "The intention is to work with the system, no matter what the results will be, but its going to be hard for us," he noted.  It will be hard, he says, because the Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs support regional autonomy.

These coalitions, representing the three major sectarian groups, will be challenged by another new alliance aimed at voters who are worried about the rising religious and ethnic divisions in Iraqi politics.

Ayad Allawi, the first prime minister following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Saturday unveiled the Iraqi List coalition. Mr. Ayad said there is a risk that growing ethnic polarization could cause sectarian conflict and divide the country.

One of the leaders of this coalition, former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, said most Iraqis do not care for parties based on religion.

"Most Iraqis have democratic, liberal tendencies," said Mr. Pachachi.  "And, people do not like, in general, these sectarian divisions as a basis for political activity."

The Iraqi list includes Shiites, Sunnis, Arab nationalists and communists. But Mr. Pachachi says they all agree on several basic principles.

"We would all like to have a secular democracy," he added.  "We would all like to have a system of government that really separates religion from the state."

Many observers say election of the new parliament, which will sit for four years, will mark the end of the transition to democracy in Iraq.

Others say the elections will mark the end of a period of stagnation and delay.

The leader of the Assyrian Party representing the small Christian minority, Yonadam Kanna, says this is because Sunnis are finally joining the political process.

"This is the beginning of the transitional period," he explained.  "We lost more than two-and-a-half years, but still it is not too late.  We have to think about the positive side, and go forward together as Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity and religion."

Analysts also say that there have been some defections from the two leading coalitions, due to internal disagreements and to unhappiness over the government's inability to improve security and the economy.

As a result, they say, there are likely to be new faces when the parliament convenes early next year.