For most of their modern history, Iraqis have been little more than spectators as foreign occupiers, then a monarchy created by Britain, and finally a series of homegrown strongmen played politics as a game of intrigue and assassination, massacre and war.
Iraqis must overcome that bloody past if they are to have a say in their future. he United States, threatening war to topple President Saddam Hussein because it believes he has weapons of mass destruction, says it wants his regime replaced by democracy. But it hasn't spelled out how.
Iraqi exiles have drawn up ambitious plans, but are weakened by ethnic, religious and political divisions. These will make it difficult for the more than 22 million Iraqis to unite behind any new vision for the country. Some fear old-style politics will endure.
Saddam is just one in a long line of Sunni Muslims who have dominated Iraqi politics and the military despite being roughly one-third of the population. Any Sunni reluctance to yield their status to the majority Shiites could stand in the way of democracy.
Hamid al-Bayati, London representative of the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a conservative Shiite group long opposed to Saddam, believes that despite its past, Iraq will eventually fall in line with what he sees as a global trend. "The whole world is moving toward democracy," al-Bayati said.
"Everybody believes in democracy, even Islamists. We are Islamists and we believe that democracy is the only way to ensure freedom." If full-blown democracy comes to Iraq, it will be a first for the Arab world. Neighboring autocrats who may fear they'll be next to be toppled if the United States succeeds at installing democracy in Iraq may try to block Iraq's transformation.
In addition, neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran all have restive Kurdish minorities and worry that emboldened Iraqi Kurds would export their gains, if only by example. Shiite Iran's relationship with Shiites in Iraq could also upset the balance.
And as long as Iraq has the world's second biggest oil reserves, it will be a tempting target for meddlesome outsiders near and far. Iyad Allawi, another exiled opponent of Saddam, said that if nothing else, Iraqis are tired of tyranny and want a future different from the past.
"Although Iraqis do not know how to govern themselves, we hope political organizations, credible ones, will have an extremely important role," said Allawi, whose Iraqi National Accord stresses secularism and counts Sunnis and Shiites among its members. "Such organizations can inject in societies fresh thinking about how societies can adapt."
For a glimpse of a possible future, look at the northern corner of Iraq. There, Iraqi Kurds have run their own affairs since a 1991 uprising, protected by U.S. and British air patrols. First there was upheaval. The two largest Kurdish factions fought through much of the 1990s until the United States brokered peace. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party are now pledged to work together in a democracy.
The Kurdish area is a microcosm of the rest of Iraq, with political factions ranging from communists to Islamic purists and an ethnic mix that includes Turkomans, Christian Assyrians, Yazidis and Arabs. Uneasy alliances and disputes still could erupt into violence. Limited oil sales under sanctions are meeting the people's basic needs, but the economy is struggling.
Unlike Iraqis living under Saddam, however, the Kurdish factions can choose to hammer out their differences in hundreds of independent newspapers, magazines and journals and dozens of television and radio stations and, since it reconvened in October for the first time in six years, a lively parliament.
The Internet is uncensored, phone conversations aren't monitored and satellite TV is allowed all freedoms unknown in Saddam's Iraq. Carole A. O'Leary, a Mideast expert at Washington's American University, sees Kurdistan as a model.
"One extremely important consequence of the Kurdish safe haven's existence is that some 3.7 million Iraqis a considerable portion of the country's population have actual experience with self rule, civil rights and a transition to democracy, " she wrote in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
Amy Hawthorne, an expert on attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East, calls Iraq "one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world" and says the challenge of transforming it is huge. "Societies take a really long time to change," said Hawthorne, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "And it has nothing to do with the yearning or longing of people for democracy."
Exiles like al-Bayati and Allawi may be seen as outsiders bringing exotic, even unpalatable ideas about democracy if Saddam is toppled, Hawthorne said. Divisions among the opposition "seems to me to be a very significant problem," she added.
A December opposition unity conference in London had to be extended from three days to five and suffered a walkout by small groups complaining the heavyweights were grabbing power before delegates could agree on a policy making committee. Shiite Muslims got 32 of the committee's 65 seats, an acknowledgment of their political clout that nonetheless fell short of recognizing them as the majority in Iraq.
Ethnically, according to the CIA, Iraq is 75-80 percent Arab, 15-20 percent Kurd and 5 percent others. There also are small communities of Christians, members of small traditional sects and Jews. Figures are hard to pin down because the Iraqi government is believed to have massaged the numbers.
Throughout Iraqi history, power has rested with the mighty, not the majority. Arab armies seized the ancient land of Nebuchadnezzar in the 7th century. What would become the core of today's Iraq came under Ottoman Turkish rule. Britain took it and in 1921 installed Faisal as king.
Britain gave Iraq all the trappings of a constitutional monarchy including a parliament but kept real power in London. Iraq gained independence in 1932. Four years later, Gen. Bakr Sidqi overthrew the government in the Arab world's first military coup.
It was the first of many such armed takeovers. In 1959, an assassination team that included a 22-year-old Saddam tried to kill Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim Kassem. The failed assassins were members of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, which espoused Arab nationalist politics, leftist economics and secularism and organized itself like an army.
After years of intrigue and bloodshed, the Baathists gained permanent power in 1968. Saddam took over as president in 1979 and executed hundreds of senior party members.
Both Shiites and Kurds have a long history of revolt. Shiite rebellions in the south were put down in 1977 and in 1991, following the Gulf War. Kurdish restiveness led to a near civil war in 1961 and uprisings in 1982, 1988 and _ again after the Gulf war. Saddam put down the 1988 revolt with chemical weapons that killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds.
Al-Bayati, of the Shiite opposition group, said one of the greatest threats to democracy is that Iraqis may fight each other for power or revenge. Chaos could be averted if, with international help, a security apparatus and an independent judiciary is quickly put in place, al-Bayati said.
Iraq was once among the most modern countries in the Middle East. Now it is a wreck, at war with Iran through the 1980s, then with the United States in 1991, and under UN sanctions since 1990. Should Saddam be toppled, the transition to democracy if it happens will happen slowly. Initially, the United States or some coalition will have to provide security and prop up a transitional authority.
That model is now being played out in Afghanistan, After the U.S.-led war that ousted the Taliban regime in 2001 and installed Hamid Karzai's regime. Whether that model will succeed remains unclear.
The struggle to topple Saddam will soon be over, and next comes the struggle for democracy, said Allawi, the opposition leader. "Maybe the next phase will be even more difficult."