When Iraqis go to the polls this weekend, Americans may sense a bold flowering of democracy in the desert. But no matter how well the vote goes, some Iraqis may sense something else -- déjà vu.
After decades of domination by the British, and centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks and other interlopers, those Iraqis may just see another government being set up under the auspices of foreigners -- including "elected" governments of varying legitimacy, historians say.
"The problem is the United States has inherited a widespread view in the Middle East that, 'Outside powers come in and interfere with us,' " said Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at the University of Toronto and author of "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World."
However, despite the inevitable historical baggage, several Iraq experts see few immediate alternatives to this weekend's election.
"We have to create a new government," said Phebe Marr, author of "The Modern History of Iraq" and a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "It has to have some modicum of legitimacy, and nobody's come up with a better method."
Iraqis on Sunday will be voting from among more than 7,000 candidates to elect a 275-member, transitional National Assembly. The assembly will be responsible for choosing a president and two deputies, who in turn will nominate a prime minister and other government ministers for approval by a full assembly vote.
The elected assembly also will be required to draft a constitution to be submitted for a public vote in the late fall. If Iraqi voters approve the constitution, elections for a permanent government will follow by the end of the year.
Exit Strategy or Entanglement?
Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University and former director of the Middle East Institute, sees a possible U.S. exit strategy in the making.
"From what I can read of the administration, they are quite aware of the fact that the people who wind up getting elected may not be that friendly to the United States, or at least the U.S. occupation," Sick said. If Americans are asked to leave Iraq, "It provides a legitimate and quite a respectable way to get out of the country."
But even there, historical precedent may cast a pall if the United States seeks to keep a military presence, as Britain once did for decades. America has built substantial military bases in Iraq, and Britain's earlier refusal to abandon similar outposts fed political instability, violence and revolt.
"I don't think, as far as I can tell, that anybody in Washington is paying much attention to that," Sick said. "That's what I see as the next big issue. And there is a historical precedent for that."
There also are concerns about fairness of the vote, because many people in predominantly Sunni Muslims areas may be unable or unwilling to go to the polls, and security at polling places may not be assured.
As a result, some fear Iraq's Shiite Muslim religious majority -- largely out of power in Iraqi lands since the Ottoman Empire drove out the Safavid Empire of Iran in 1638 -- may gain a disproportionate majority on the assembly, perhaps at the expense of Sunni Arabs or even the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq.
"You will not see an Iraqi national election; you will see a Shiite election," said Edwin Black, author of "Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit and Conflict." "Rather than creating the impetus for Iraqi unification, this is going to spark a civil war, a civil war that is probably unfolding before our eyes even as we speak."
Such concerns about which faction will run Iraq have a long precedent there: The Ottoman Empire's often-ineffective rule from afar allowed tribal, ethnic or religious factions to fight for local control, though the region's Sunni minority often gained favor under the Sunni Muslim Turks.
Sunnis continued to wield disproportionate power after World War I, when three separate provinces of the Ottoman Empire -- largely Kurdish Mosul, heavily Sunni Baghdad and Shiite Basra -- were combined to form modern-day Iraq, which was to be guided into statehood by the British under a "mandate" from the League of Nations.
"The British created something that doesn't really have the basis of what we would consider a country," said MacMillan, who has speculated that the British may have lumped Mosul in with the rest of Iraq partly to keep it out of the hands of the French, who controlled neighboring Arab lands.
The British had moved into the area during World War I. Upon riding into Baghdad on March 19, 1917, British Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude read from a proclamation declaring, "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." Similar words would echo in Iraqis ears decades later, as top U.S. officials made similar post-invasion claims.
"There are many parallels between the problems and challenges that the British faced when they went in to Iraq … [and] the very problems we're facing today," Marr said. "There are parallel themes that keep occurring [in Iraqi history] that are very pronounced in the Iraqi mind. The Iraqis know their history very well."
Arabs had revolted against the Turks in coordination with the British -- including rebellions in neighboring areas that were dramatized in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" -- and expected their efforts would gain them independence after World War I.
But the British remained in Iraq after the war, and did not give autonomy to Iraqis until 1932. Perhaps desiring a steady supply of oil and a stopover point en route to India, the British maintained influence in the country until a 1958 coup and subsequent disruption that ultimately paved the way for the authoritarian Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
Black fears the United States may face a similar difficulty disengaging from Iraq.
"We will not be able to really withdraw until we get off of oil," he said. "For some 90 years, we have sent our best diplomats, our best corporate surrogates and our best militaries to preserve the petroleum lifeline that the West has become addicted to."
Though the British gradually loosened the reins, it took them nearly 40 years.
Instead of granting full independence in the early 1920s, the British set up a system of indirect rule. They put down a rebellion with brutal air assaults and ran controversial elections that legitimized Iraqis the British expected would be sympathetic -- including the Hashemite King Faisal, who wasn't even from Iraq, but had aided the British by leading wartime rebellions against the Turks.
"The British, I think, in the long run thought Iraq would be ready for self-government, and they saw it [the League of Nations mandate] as a period of tutelage," MacMillan said. "The British model was, of course, a constitutional monarchy, like their own."
Flirtation With Democracy
As time went on, Iraq moved closer to open debate, democracy and representative government -- with Shiites even serving as prime minister. But still, the British maintained military bases in Iraq, a source of political friction that fed a vocal anti-British opposition movement.
"While this kind of nationalist movement is understandable, in my point of view, it did interfere with the parliamentary system," Marr said. "It also had a negative influence on Iraq, because the parliamentary system that was introduced, while flawed, did have the bare bones" of democracy.
Parliamentary elections ended after the 1958 coup.
"They basically set the clock back right to the beginning," MacMillan said, "because they destroyed pretty much all independent organizations."
Saddam revived Parliament in the 1980s, and his regime also held elections, but they were widely seen as shams.
Saddam's regime also continued an Iraqi tradition of factional violence. Saddam's mass slaughter of Kurds and Shiite groups followed massacres earlier in the century of Jews and Assyrians.
New Iraq or Civil War?
Now that Saddam has been deposed, Shiites, who make up a majority of the population, may not be the only group anticipating real elections. Marr sensed optimism about the vote during a recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, the region once within the Ottoman province of Mosul.
"The attitude toward the election would be that this would be a way to participate in the new Iraq," Marr said. "There is probably a diversity of views [elsewhere], but a very strong view in the Sunni areas that the occupation is the most important thing … and there's no such thing as a free election while troops are on their soil."
For that reason, Marr sees Sunday's election merely as an incremental step that will not likely end the Sunni-dominated insurgency or quickly establish a stable Iraq.
"The real problems lie after the election," Marr said. "The real question is going to be, 'Is this election going to produce people who are pragmatic enough?' … If not, Iraq is going to slip into a civil war.
"They [pragmatic Iraqis] know they don't have an army, they don't have border control, they don't have security," she added. "Many people in Iraq who dislike the [U.S.-led] presence understand that it's got to stay long enough to find a replacement. … The British had exactly the same thing. They did set up the government. They managed to get some pragmatic, reasonable people who would accept them."
But some believe the U.S.-led occupation has gone on for too long for pragmatism to rise over anger.
"It's another example of our naiveté in our policy toward Iraq to think that this election represents anything more than another appendage of the infidel that they resent," Black said. "Remember, it's not our policies that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi insurgents resent. It is our presence."