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The six bullets fired last week in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul killed a Turkmen Iraqi judge. A few days earlier in the Shi'ite city of Najaf, a mortar was discovered with its muzzle pointing at the offices of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the largest Shi'ite organizations represented on the nation's temporary ruling council. The same week, a large bomb exploded near the offices of this organization in Baghdad and killed one of its senior members. An affiliated school was shelled, with one person killed and 10 wounded. A prominent Sunni mosque in the Azmiyye quarter of Baghdad was attacked at the same time, also resulting in damage and several wounded. A few days later, a large bomb exploded next to the Kurdish Interior Ministry offices in the Kurdish city of Irbil, killing three people. In Kirkuk, fighting broke out between Kurdish and Arab students, and between Kurds and Turkmens.

The recent series of events in Iraq suggests a new trend; clashes with ethnic and religious undercurrents. It's not really new. Political killings have punctuated the American occupation almost from the first few days after the war itself was concluded, but now they've been augmented by open political battles. Last week, the senior Sunni leadership gathered to set up a political council to watch out for the interests of their sector, whose leaders fear being sidelined as the opening of the temporary governing council approaches. The Shi'ite religious leadership and the Shi'ite secular leadership represented on the temporary governing council are divided over the question of how the council's members are to be named in preparation for the handing over of the reigns to a transitional legislature in July. The Kurds, for their part, have already launched a political arrangement designed to secure their aspirations with respect to autonomy, if not their nationalist aspirations. All this political maneuvering guarantees that even after the capture of Saddam Hussein, the level of violence in Iraq is not going to decrease.

Two main centers of political infighting are now operating in Iraq. Within the Shi'ite community, encompassing the majority of the country's population, there is disagreement among secular figures named to the transitional governing council and religious figures on the council, some of whom represent religious organizations while others are followers of leading Shi'ite clerics. There is no consensus about the agreement signed on November 15 between the Iraqi governing council and the American civil administration headed by L. Paul Bremer.

The agreement calls for electoral nominating committees to be named in each of Iraq's 18 major regions, each of which will then name 15 candidates. The committees will in effect screen candidates wishing to stand for the planned 250-seat Iraqi parliament. To fulfill this role, the committees will consult prominent figures in the regions, tribal chiefs, leading clerics and renowned academics. Each region will elect members to the parliament, based on population size. The agreement further states that five members of each nominating committee will be named by the temporary ruling council, five by regional governors, and one by the city councils of the five largest cities.

The hudna could collapse

Shi'ite leader Ali Sistani opposes this system and demands free, direct elections for the transitional parliament as well. He argues that the creation of the nominating committees will be controlled by the temporary governing council, which was set up by the American administration. Members of the nominating committees named by regional governors, who in any case are viewed as allied with the Americans, will make sure that the transitional parliament and the constitution to be drafted will have a pronounced American inclination. Moreover, Sistani fears that the new constitution, if written by people chosen in the manner now proposed, could forestall any influence for traditional Islamic law, his desired foundation for the new Iraqi regime.

Sistani, 75, is a respected religious authority and considered a gifted interpreter of religious law. Though a colleague of Khomeini in the 1970s, he believes that clerics should not be taking an active part in government but should instead play a role as advisors to insure that government respects religious tenets. But the advising he proposes amounts to religious coercion. When Sistani threatens to lay a ban on the nomination and election process, he does so with broad public support which could easily become violently rebellious. The hudna declared by Sistani at the start of the war could give way to civil war.

Sistani doesn't meet with politicians or members of the American administration, on the principle that he isn't involved in politics, but he corresponds with Americans and dictates political judgments, which can be found on his Internet site. Sistani is prepared to relinquish his demand for free and direct elections only if the United Nations announces that, under current conditions, they cannot be held. This stipulation gives the UN the authority to decide, hence the American administration is opposed to it.

Sistani is not the only one who opposes the agreement that was signed, which itself represents an American concession on earlier U.S. aspirations to first get a constitution written and then hold elections. Many of the 25-member temporary governing council also understand that the agreement could hurt their prospects to continue running things in Iraq. Most have no broad public base of support and some are Iraqi refugees who have returned to the country only recently. Some of them are now saying that the agreement is no more than a series of understandings, to be developed according to the reality in the field. Some Shi'ite secular leaders, meanwhile, support the American plan because they expect it to give them fair representation as prospects dim for establishment of a Shi'ite Islamic state.

The Kurds want repatriation

The reality in the field is stirring emotions in the Kurdish camp as well. "If the Americans neglect Kurdish interests, the Kurds will have to look out for themselves," wrote Dr. Mohammed Ahmed, a Kurdish commentator, last week. He means that the Kurds have suddenly wondered if their aspirations for a federated state, in which the Kurds would have broad autonomy along with an important part in running Iraq, will go down the drain if the American plan is implemented. "Now we see that the Americans mean a federation of regions, not a federation on an ethnic or religious basis," as one senior figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, recently commented to Haaretz.

To prevent such an eventuality, the Kurds sent the temporary council a legislative proposal that would divide Iraq into three autonomous regions - Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni, would annex to the Kurdish region two additional mixed regions and the city of Kirkuk, and would then hold elections on this basis. "We don't want to be surprised twice," says a senior Kurdish figure - "once when our political power was dispersed among the mixed regions [of Arabs and Kurds], and again if we aren't able to realize Kurdish autonomy despite having been an important force in aiding the Americans during the war. Aside from which, we don't want to see Iraq become a Shi'ite religious state in the end, on the Iranian model." To show how serious they are, the Kurds decided to close ranks and set up a joint Kurdish administration, with jobs being divided between the Talabani and the Barzani camps.

The Kurds made clear to the Americans that the Kurdish leaders have a responsibility to their constituency and cannot permit the proposed elections process to harm their power or the interests of the area over which they aspire to govern, with or without democracy. Very cautiously, they have emphasized that they aren't talking about founding an independent Kurdish state and understand very well the Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian sensitivities to the establishment of such a state, but "we have to look at the facts on the ground. We don't want something that isn't ours. These are areas that Saddam Hussein emptied of Kurds, in the cruel Arabization process he carried out [in what were heavily Kurdish regions of Iraq]. We want to repatriate the Kurds who were uprooted and are still sitting in refugee camps," says the Kurdish representative.

The Kurdish aspirations are shaking up the Turkmen residents of Kirkuk. The Turkmens are saying that they were the principal victims of Saddam Hussein and that in the last 15 years, when the Kurds had American countenance and were able to do well economically, they, the Turkmens, continued suffering under Saddam. Moreover, they provide historical accounts according to which Kirkuk and environs were under Turkmen control during various periods in the past and were "stolen" by the Kurds. The Turkmens are trying to persuade the Americans that they were once about 10 percent of the population in Iraq, based on decades-old census data, and that only due to Saddam's Arabization process, which forced them to choose either Arab nationality or Kurdish nationality, were they reduced to about 4 percent of the population.

These quarrels, the absence of an elections law, the dearth of data on the number of citizens in Iraq, the question of the status of Iraqi exiles who have not yet returned home, and especially the deteriorating security situation, led to an American decision to try to create a "partially elected" transitional government as the least bad option. Now several further radical changes appear likely before any sort of democratic process will be feasible in the country. Saddam's capture looks more and more like drama and entertainment, compared with the stubborn political infighting that appears set to heat up in Iraq over the next few weeks.