The Sunni Muslim insurgents in central Iraq have been trying in vain for at least two-and-a-half years to provoke a full-scale civil war in Iraq and, until the December elections, they had continued to fail miserably.
Their revolt, for all its unanticipated ferocity and resilience, has only been effective in two of Iraq's 19 provinces and the capital Baghdad. It has failed to gain any significant active support or traction whatsoever in the Kurdish north, and even the one Shiite movement most likely to share its jihadist and anti-American aims, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, has stayed on the sidelines and carefully avoided any active involvement with it. Instead, al-Sadr's forces have slowly but methodically organized across Shiite southern Iraq, quietly financed and backed by Iran.
The assassination of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in August 2003 by a massive car bomb was a clear indication of the desire of the Sunni insurgents to provoke the Shiite majority into massive retaliation against the general Sunni community.
This strategy was not as suicidal as it sounds: It clearly had two major goals. The first was to radicalize the five million-strong Sunni community who comprise 20 percent of Iraq's population into a far more widespread support of the extreme insurgents.
The second, and far more important goal, was to get the Shiite majority to despair of their own restrained and relatively moderate leadership, and to become radicalized in massive numbers against U.S. forces and influence themselves.
However, even successful acts of mega-carnage -- like the stampede that was provoked on the Aimma Bridge across the River Tigris in Baghdad, that killed almost a thousand people, almost all of them Shiites, on Aug. 31, 2005 -- failed to provoke that response. Why then did the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara last week succeed in setting off such an enraged popular Shiite response when so many previous attempts had failed?
In the past, most Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite alike, still had the hope of a political pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to look forward to: They could hope that for all the catastrophic bungles of Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority, and for all the ferocity of the ongoing insurgency, the Dec. 15 elections -- the third elections or referendum Iraq had seen within a year -- would finally produce representable political parties from each of the country's three major communities, Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, that would isolate the insurgents, guarantee the wellbeing of the Sunnis and bring peace and security at last to the Shiites.
But the election clearly did none of these things. Each major religious or ethnic group in Iraq produced tough, uncompromising representatives and the extremely weak new constitution did not harness their political energies and ambitions constructively. John Simpson, world affairs editor of the BBC, and one of the most experienced foreign correspondents to cover Iraq, in an analysis published Monday, summed up very succinctly what happened next.
"Looking back on the events of the past year, it is clear that the three different popular votes which were held in Iraq, two elections and one referendum, played a big part in whipping up the violence," he wrote.
"People who had tended to regard themselves primarily as Iraqis were suddenly forced to focus on the fact that they belonged to a particular group: Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian, or whatever.
"The act of voting was as divisive as it was empowering, and the fact that it happened three times in 11 months added to the intensity of the problem."
This is not the first time in modern history that the results of a genuinely free and fair election set off a horrendous civil war. The same thing happened in Ireland in 1921-1922, resulting in a civil war in which Irishmen killed each other in greater numbers than had just died fighting the British Empire in their successful War of Independence.
But American policymakers had a much more dramatic and awful example far closer to home that should have warned them about the potential of popular democratic passion to set off catastrophic civil strife: The free and fair elections of 1860 divided the United States between North and South as never before and led directly and rapidly first to the secession of the 13 Southern States and then to the worst civil war the modern Western World has ever known, in which 650,000 people died.
Iraq may yet avoid such a terrible fate. But there is no doubt that, as Simpson acutely noted, far from bringing its people together, the workings of the democratic process there have ripped them asunder as never before.