The March 7 election is a test of the permanence of the division between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

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March 5 2010 7:12 AM

Will the Exiles Return to Iraq?

Sunday's election is a test of the permanence of the division between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

Also in Slate, Anna Husarska has a slide show  looking at the everyday lives of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

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A year ago, in the provincial elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition won a majority on a nationalist agenda, campaigning on the themes of Iraqi unity, good governance, and improved services. At the time, Maliki courted Sunni politicians as well as Sunni votes, and his success seemed to indicate that the sectarian divide was closing, if not healing. Iraqi exiles, especially in the Sunni community, noted the change and, as a result, the exiles became more transient: One member of the family would be sent back to Baghdad to collect pensions, back pay, or to work for a few months to support the extended family exiled in Syria. These were the scouts for a larger movement home. But sectarian tensions are on the rise again as Shiite politicians stir populist fears of the return of the outlawed Baath Party that ruled the country in Saddam's day.

Subtly equating Baathist with Sunni, appears to be a political strategy to convince the majority Shiites to vote out of fear rather than interest. The decision by a Shiite-controlled official body to ban more than 500 candidates, many of them Sunnis, on often sketchy charges of links to the outlawed Baath Party stirred fears in the larger Sunni community that the real motive was to marginalize them politically. Prime Minister Maliki ditched his nationalist message as the campaign heated up. Fighting to keep his job against a competing Shiite political bloc, Maliki has embraced a more sectarian campaign agenda, alienating Sunni voters and nationalists who want an end to sectarian politics.

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Iraqis say they are fed up with sectarianism, a conflict that has divided neighborhoods and families. The exiles are exhausted by a schism that forced their departure. Many live in desperate conditions, with no hope of work or integration, their children largely outside the education system. Internally, Iraq still has more than 2 million displaced citizens, a legacy of the all-out war of Sunni against Shiite. In Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province, 62 percent of those driven out are Shiites, and only about 1 percent of the people who left have returned. In the largely Shiite southern provinces, the Sunnis were driven out and are unlikely to return. The Iraqi agency that surveys displaced people reports that the majority may not wish to return to their homes of origin, sealing geographic divisions.

The election is a key moment for Iraq, a measure of where the country is headed as the country's leaders struggle to end the violence and create stability ahead of the U.S. withdrawal later this year. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill summed up the trial ahead: "The real test of democracy is not so much the behavior of the winners; it will be the behavior of the losers." There can be no stability without political reconciliation and the exiles' return. They are in daily contact with their families, waiting for word that is time to come back. The rest of the region is waiting, too.

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Deborah Amos is a correspondent for NPR. She reports from the Middle East.

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