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Iraq election: Will hope -- or fear -- sway voters?

Iraqi elections March 7 will be another major test of the country's democratic experiment.

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Each election in Iraq has been a critical turning point. The first post-Saddam Hussein election, in early 2005, was boycotted by Sunni Arabs. It was followed by mounting sectarian polarization and violence.

In the second election, in late 2005, all communities, including Sunnis, participated – but fear and anxiety caused Iraqis to vote their own sectarian or ethnic identity. Sunni Arabs mainly voted for Sunni Islamists, Shiites overwhelmingly voted for Shiite Islamists, and, of course, Kurds voted for the two Kurdish parties. This was the case even among voters who identified themselves as secular.

The second election was a relative success: The national unity government that was formed gave Iraq’s main communities representation in the three branches of government.

But extremist groups sought to destabilize the country through high-profile attacks, like the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. The result was an explosion of sectarian rage among the Arabs and a wave of violence that pushed the country close to the brink of civil war.

The national elections on March 7 will be another major test of Iraq’s democratic experiment.

The question is whether Iraqis will advance further by capitalizing on hard-earned progress and embrace issue-based political competition, or whether the country will regress toward the earlier pattern of sectarianism and violent political competition.

Signs of progress

The trends had been positive until very recently. Sectarian tensions and violence – and violence in general – have declined significantly. Public opinion polls in recent months indicated increased support for nonsectarian parties and coalitions. Iraqis were becoming optimistic about the future.

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