BAGHDAD -- It was an Iraqi gathering straight out of Bush administration dreams: Educated professionals and businessmen, both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, who wanted to build a new Iraq and had been eager for elections.
But when the heated discussion started in Ghassan Attiyah's living room, you saw how these elections are tearing the country apart.
Attiyah, a wry, bearded intellectual who returned from London exile to found a Baghdad think tank, put together a secular political movement that is contesting the forthcoming elections on a platform of bridging the gap between ethnic and religious groups.
Around 40 members of his Independent Iraqi Movement gathered on Friday in the living and dining rooms of his comfortable one-story house in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood. His street was blocked off by armed guards to ward off any assassination attempts.
The members were there to debate whether they should withdraw from the Jan. 30 contest. Their concern was whether these elections could be fair, or safe, if held under present conditions, when most Sunni Arabs (who make up 20 percent of the population) are unwilling to vote. Unless a formula could be found to bring most Sunnis into the system, some people in this room feared that the country would sink into civil war.
"Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made January 30 a sacred date," Attiyah told the group. He spoke of his efforts to reach out to the Sunni-led insurgency, and to woo insurgents who weren't radical Islamists or diehard Saddam remnants. This, he said, needed more time.
He feared that a new parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds, where Sunnis were scarce, would strengthen the hand of the insurgents: "The Sunnis will be outside the parliament, and this will end in fighting and civil war."
Attiyah wanted the elections to be postponed, to give time for them to be better prepared -- and time for outreach to Sunnis. But the Americans, he said, were unwilling to reach out to insurgents who might be willing to take part in elections under certain conditions. So he polled his members as to whether they still wanted to participate.
The first several speakers in the room, including a professor and a sheikh from the Shiite south, were firm in their belief that their movement should take part. Tariq Attiyah (a cousin of the host) argued passionately that many Sunnis were being intimidated by "bad people who want to hold Iraq back. If we withdraw, we will open the door to these people." He argued that Iraq's problems could be solved by its tribes.
The room erupted in shouting. Lawyer Amhed Abdel Kader al-Shawi shouted, "You don't know anything about Ramadi." He referred to a town in the so-called Sunni triangle near Fallujah, where fighting has been heavy. "Israel has intervened there [a common Iraqi belief]."
Shaikh Deraa Meshen al-Herdan, a stately lawyer from the huge Tamimi tribe, chimed in: "This is not a problem between sheikhs." Herdan told the group that his tribe had decided none of its members should vote, so he had to withdraw his name from Attiyah's list.
More Sunni stories poured forth. A doctor from Fallujah told how he had wanted to work to represent his area in parliament, and how he hated the Islamists who caused the destruction of his city. But he is withdrawing his name from Attiyah's list because he can't run while his fellow Fallujans are all in refugee camps.
A businessman from Mosul told how his brother was kidnapped by Islamists because he was related to someone running for parliament. The family paid $350,000 to get him freed. He too was withdrawing his name, saying, "It is certain death if you participate."
Others talked of a delegation of Sunnis who had traveled to Najaf to confer with the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, about whether he might concur in an election postponement. Three of the delegation were kidnapped on their way home and have yet to be released.
Here in this room were urban Sunnis, educated men, who had been ready to participate in elections. Because of fear or frustration, they were now unwilling. The meeting was a reminder that the Sunnis at the core of the insurgency -- the Islamists and Saddamists -- are only a fraction of the community.
Unable to vote
Attiyah, who returned to Iraq as an optimist and believed that the country could become a democracy, thinks that American mistakes -- such as abolishing the Iraqi army -- alienated moderate Sunnis who could have been brought into the system. Now the inability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to protect those Sunnis leaves them unable to vote.
"We thought we had a chance to create a middle-class society," Attiyah told me. Unless a way is found to bring Sunnis into the political fold, he fears that Iraq faces more chaos after the elections, which may lead many Iraqis to yearn for a new dictator.
It is too late now to postpone the Jan. 30 elections. The open question is whether it will still be possible for Iraqis to reconcile with one another after a ballot that divides them along religious and ethnic lines.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.