WASHINGTON – With Iraq's elections a month away, a pivotal question emerges: Given the sharp religious and ethnic divisions and the possible influence of neighboring Iran, what kind of government will a new Iraq get?
Most observers agree that it will be Islamic-based, but they differ over whether Islam will dictate the law in Iraq — much as it does in Iran (search) — or be a guiding principle. Some also see the chance for a more secular, Western-style democracy to prevail.
Vali Nasr, a professor in the national security affairs department and Islamic scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School (search) in California, said the United States needs to accept that the new government will likely include Islamic aspects.
"Instead of saying zero Islam," he said, "we have to accept some roles for it and put the emphasis on not how much religion, but what kind of roles religion will play."
Given that there are two competing Muslim Iraqi populations — the majority Shia and the minority Sunni — fears exist that a civil war could erupt, particularly if the new government designs a constitution in which one religious belief system dominates another, with little tolerance for the religious or ethnic differences that exist in Iraq today.
Many believe the recent escalation in violence in Iraq reflects Sunni extremist desires to see the elections delayed or delegitimized before they begin.
Ansar al-Sunna, a Sunni guerrilla group reportedly responsible for a number of terrorist attacks and kidnappings during the war in Iraq, took responsibility for the devastating attack on a U.S. base in Mosul, which killed 22 people — including 13 American soldiers and five U.S civilians — on Tuesday.
Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls on Jan. 30 to choose who will sit in the 275-member interim National Assembly. The assembly will then pick the prime minister and the cabinet. A total of 83 separate candidate lists, consisting of more than 5,000 hopefuls representing parties, alliances and independents, were registered as of Dec. 15.
Shia (search) candidates are expected to sweep the elections because Shia Iraqis are 60 percent of the population. Sunnis, who were favored under Saddam Hussein's regime, account for 20 percent.
While some Sunnis (search) are participating in the elections, a large coalition of Sunni groups have called for a boycott and delay in the elections because of the violence, which has been largely perpetuated by Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and the surrounding Sunni provinces.
It's the expectations of a strong Shia showing that have some looking to the influence of Iran. Iranians are largely Shia, and Iran's fundamentalist rulers have strong ties with some of the candidates expected to win in January. This relationship makes some secularists — as well as those in the American government — concerned that an active effort is underway to create an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq.
Last week, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iran and neighboring Syria (search) of not only trying to influence the Shia Iraqis in the election, but causing the terrorist violence, too.
"They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics rule in Iraq," Shaalan said.
Islamic scholars who spoke to FOXNews.com, however, suggested that while Islam will indeed play a role in the new Iraqi state, it won't necessarily be as hard-line and intolerant as Shaalan and others have suggested.
"The election itself could produce some of the more religious parties getting a larger mandate — but that might only be symbolic," said Nasr. "The real rub will come when they write the constitution. That will really decide if Iraq has a religious government."
In an interview with Paris Match Magazine Dec. 22, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said he does not believe Iraqi elections will result in a radical theocracy.
"Will it be Shia majority? Yes. But will it be radical? I've seen no indication of that," Powell said. "I see indications of political debate and dialogue taking place and people trying to figure out how to win an election."
Not everyone is convinced that the moderates will win out.
David Phillips, Middle East expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is the Americans' fault for driving away moderate Muslims during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and for feeding the sentiments of extreme religious types with ties to Iran in the post-conflict period. While it might not look like Iran, there is a good chance Iraq will indeed be run by more extreme religious leaders.
"They will be less likely to share power with other religions and that will further disenfranchise the Iraqi Sunni and further encourage infighting among the different factions," he predicted.
But other scholars disagree.
They point to the dominant, and so far the most favored, list of candidates: the 228-member United Iraqi Alliance, brought together by the cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (search). Observers say Al-Sistani doesn't appear to be seeking a hard-line religious government based on strict Islamic or Sharia Law.
"Al-Sistani, who is the Shia grandfather in Iraq, is described as a quietist," said Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to a Shiite tradition that separates religion from politics, and is considered more moderate. "And [he] does not believe in taking that religious authority and investing it with strong political motives."
Al-Sistani is not one of the candidates. But the top two candidates on his list, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, are expected to attain high ranking in the new interim National Assembly if the United Iraqi Alliance sweeps the election. Hakim's family helped to establish the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which since its founding in Iran in 1982, has become the largest Shia political party in Iraq.
Al-Jaafari represents the Islamic Dawa Party. Former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, as well as a few Sunnis and secular candidates, are also on Sistani's list.
Some Islamic scholars say Al-Sistani's alliance has moderate intentions, while critics say the SCIRI influence and its ties to Iran are too close for comfort. But most acknowledge that Sistani's alliance, leading right now with Hakim, will sweep the elections.
"Iraq, right now, is mostly likely going to vote along ethnic, sectarian lines, so we know what the lists are and where the votes will go," pointed out Abbas Khadim, an Islamic studies professor with the Graduate Theological Union at University of California-Berkeley, who believes fears of an Iranian-style government are "overrated."
He said the only Shia hard-liners worth noting are those led by Muqtada al-Sadr (search), the rebel cleric who negotiated a peace with U.S. forces this fall, but he is not participating in the elections. "These people who are running are not jihadi Muslims," said Abbas. "They are leaning towards a creative interpretation of Islam and have pragmatic approaches."
The big concern, he said, is the under-representation of the Sunni Muslims in the new National Assembly. There are at least three Sunni candidate lists as of Wednesday, but they are still a small fraction of the whole.
Meanwhile, Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's (search) 240-member slate, which is promoting a more secular approach, is not expected to do well against the dominant Shiite slate, either.
If Islam is incorporated into the constitution as a guiding principle or foundation, which it may likely be, said Nasr, the question is whether it be flexible enough to include Sunni and well as Shiite interpretations, while being accessible and fair to Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq.
"They are as different as Catholics and Protestants," he said of Sunni and Shiite. "For instance, Shia law is more liberal on women’s issues than Sunni law. Islam could become the new political football."
All agree the United States needs to stay clear away from any influence on the elections. After the National Assembly is chosen, it will appoint a new prime minister and cabinet, and write a new constitution. A year from now, the constitution will be put up for a vote and a permanent government will be elected.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.