BAGHDAD -- Back in the days of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab minority ruled, and the majority Shiites suffered.
Now the Shiites are about to come to power through the ballot, and Sunni Arabs are scared.
They fear that politics is still a zero sum game and this time they will be the losers. They fear Shiites will pay them back for what they suffered under Saddam.
They look at the posters of the United Iraqi Alliance -- the bloc of Shiite parties and groupings that has been "blessed" by the top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Every poster bears the face of the ayatollah. Secular Iraqis (including many Shiites) fear that a win for the alliance will mean a Shiite Islamic state like that of Iran.
And there's no doubt that the Alliance will win the largest percentage of votes. Shiite clerics across Iraq are urging their flock to vote for this list, while Sunni clerics are urging their followers to boycott the entire ballot.
It is this divide between Sunnis and Shiites that fuels the insurgency that threatens the country. If the victorious Shiites are magnanimous and reach out to Sunnis, they could undercut the Sunni insurgents. If the Shiites push their victory too hard, the country may split apart.
I've spent much of my trip to Iraq sounding out the top Shiite leaders about how they plan to handle their new power. What I learned offers some room for hope.
One. The top figures on the Shiite list have no interest in promoting the Iranian system of rule by a supreme cleric (known as velayet e faqih).
"It is definitely false that our party wants velayet e faqih," said Vice-President Ibrahim Jaafari, a potential candidate for prime minister from the Shiite list. He says such a system would not fit Iraq, where at least a third of the population aren't Shiite and many are secular. Indeed, Sistani rejects direct participation of clerics in government (though he has taken a major behind-the-scenes role).
Two. Even if the Shiite list gets the major share of the votes, it may not push to lead the country. Many Shiites prefer to see interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi get another term. A secular Shiite with his own list, he is viewed as a tough guy who would be capable of finishing off the insurgents. Sistani is said to believe that Shiites should focus in coming months on the writing of the constitution -- which will be overseen by the new parliament.
Three. Shiite leaders grasp the need to include Sunnis in the political process. Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, another potential prime minister, says the risk of civil war depends "on how we behave if we get 50 to 60 percent of the vote, on how open we are." He suggests that prominent Sunnis be included on the constitutional drafting committee and be offered posts in the government.
Four. Shiite leaders stress that the Sunnis have a powerful tool to ensure that the constitution is to their liking. The Iraqi interim constitution permits any three Iraqi provinces to veto the draft constitution in a referendum. This provision was included to satisfy the Kurds and was originally opposed by Shiite leaders. Those very leaders now say it gives Sunni regions a crucial voice.
Fomenting civil war
Five. Shiite leaders believe insurgents are killing Shiites to foment civil war and they are determined not to fall into this trap. Hussain Shahristani, a close confidant of Sistani, recounted how the ayatollah prevented a reprisal attack after insurgents slaughtered a Shiite funeral procession: "Sistani told members of the tribe that even if the [terrorists] wiped out a whole village along with his own two sons, that we should pay this price rather than have civil war."
These hopeful signs don't mean that the Shiites are going to deny themselves the fruits of their majority status. They frequently use the analogy of South Africa, with themselves cast as the blacks and Sunnis as the whites.
"They [the Sunnis] will get used to it [the loss of power]," said Finance Minister Mahdi, "like South African whites who didn't give up the first day."
Shiite leaders are realistic, however, about the dangers of triumphal behavior, which offers some hope that a dialogue with Sunnis can be started.
"The real danger," said Mahdi, "is that Shia will overvalue their power and go to extreme requests." He stopped for a moment, then added: "But people are wiser than before."
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.