PHILADELPHIA -- The most important coming elections for Americans are not the congressional races in 2006 but the Iraqi elections Thursday.
They hold the key to whether U.S. troops can leave Iraq without disaster. U.S. military commanders have been saying for months that no military "victory" can be achieved in Iraq, no matter the rhetoric from Washington. Only a political solution will undercut Iraqi violence. Bitterly feuding Iraqi factions must agree on a formula to share power - and oil money.
Without a political solution, Iraq is likely to split and sink into deeper civil war, with U.S. troops caught in the middle.
The crucial weeks will come soon after the voting. The results will depend more on the diplomatic skills of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad than on all the U.S. troops in Iraq.
Rather than unite Iraqis, the ballot is more likely to split them further. Kurds will vote for Kurdish parties. Shiites, encouraged by their clerics, will vote predominantly for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties.
Sunni Arabs, a 20 percent minority who benefited most from Saddam Hussein's rule, boycotted the last elections. The good news: They are joining the political process and are likely to vote heavily this time. The bad news: The emergence of new elected Sunni leaders won't, by itself, undercut the Sunni-led fighting. The insurgency will lessen only when Sunnis become convinced they have a real role in the political system.
I had hoped this might happen in the coming months. But recent conversations with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders have made me more pessimistic. The level of anger and hostility among communities has been rising; these emotions could overcome even leaders who want to avoid all-out civil war.
Shiite Iraqis, persecuted brutally under Mr. Hussein, are outraged at the unending series of car bombs blowing up Shiite civilians in mosques and markets. These bombs are set by radical Islamist factions of the insurgency, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who wants to provoke civil war.
Shiites have demanded that mainstream Sunni notables denounce the bombing of their civilians. But Sunni leaders have been slow to take up this challenge. So Shiite militias - often in police uniform - have started taking their own revenge, often murdering and torturing innocent Sunnis. This tit-for-tat killing could become much worse.
The deepening Shiite-Sunni divide has even more dangerous repercussions. Shiite political leaders now talk about forming a large southern Shiite sub-state in nine of Iraq's 18 provinces, which would be heavily dependent on Iranian backing. Technically, that state would still be part of a federal Iraq. But in reality, it would mean the breakup of the country - with Shiites retreating to the south and Kurds withdrawing to their autonomous region in the north.
Iraq's oil reserves are in the Kurdish north and Shiite south, and the new Iraqi constitution gives control of future oil to the two regions. Thus, Sunnis would be left with an oil-less desert area with no economic basis for survival. This is a formula for disaster.
If Iraq splits, Baghdad and other mixed-population cities will become scenes of brutal ethnic cleansing. Down this road lie the horrors that engulfed Yugoslavia and Lebanon. In such a failed state, Mr. al-Zarqawi's terrorist bands would find a most convenient training ground.
The hope of avoiding such a dire scenario lies in post-election diplomacy in which Mr. Khalilzad's role will be central. The vote will produce a new body of Sunni parliamentarians. Mr. Khalilzad should encourage them to openly disavow insurgent attacks on Shiite civilians.
He should also pursue his talks with Sunni nationalist insurgents who oppose the U.S. presence but disavow Mr. al-Zarqawi's tactics. He should tell these insurgents that their best hope of retaining a unified Iraq and getting U.S. troops to leave depends on moving from violence into the political arena.
Mr. Khalilzad must also press Shiites and Kurds to give Sunnis incentives to re-enter the political system. They must allow Sunnis a fair share of Iraqi oil.
The forces tearing Iraq apart are gathering strength, but the elections Thursday will temporarily focus Sunnis on politics rather than fighting. The vote provides a brief opening for U.S. diplomacy that might not come again soon.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.