To date, the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has exhibited a strong tendency to appoint Iraqis to political positions based primarily on sectarian and ethnic considerations. The Governing Council created last July consisted of thirteen Arab Shiites, five Arab Sunnis, five Kurdish Sunnis, a Christian and a Sunni Turkoman —a membership that approximates the ethnic and sectarian breakdown of the population as a whole. On September 1, the Governing Council itself appointed a cabinet in which portfolios were allocated to reflect precisely the Council's own ethnic and sectarian make-up. Apparently deeming it successful, the CPA extended this practice to district and council elections in communally heterogeneous Iraqi cities and towns. The CPA determines the number of representatives for each community according to its demographic weight, and then invites members of that community to vote for their representatives.

In the wake of three decades of the Saddam Hussein regime's virulent ethno-sectarian practices, which marginalized the vast majority of Iraqi communities politically and economically, it is incumbent upon the CPA to give members of as many Iraqi communities as possible a political role. And it is understandable that the CPA does not want to be perceived as favoring one Iraqi community over others. But it is absolutely crucial to recognize that institutionalizing such practices in the forthcoming constitution would be hugely deleterious to Iraq's future. It would ingrain and legitimize particularistic identities, creating notions of 'exclusiveness' that inevitably would exacerbate dislocations among the country's various communities.

Institutionalizing ethnic and sectarian particularisms is bound in the long term to create a socio-political environment in which citizens' commitment to the 'general good' would gradually transfer to the 'good' of their narrower community. This is a recipe for civil breakdown, even for state collapse. The case of Lebanon is instructive. The sectarian-based political system, or "confessional" as it is called in Lebanon, guaranteed the political rights of each of Lebanon's diverse communities in the expectation that by alleviating inter-communal suspicion and mistrust, the various groups would remain committed to the larger entity of Lebanon. What happened instead was an entrenchment of community-based attitudes and loyalties so great that the country ended up losing a quarter of its life span to a catastrophic civil war.

This is not the path that Iraq should follow. Indeed, the recent floundering of the much-touted democratic experiment in the northern city of Kirkuk is a case in point. Kirkuk's city council, formed in May 2003, consists of Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkomans, and Christian Assyrians. It is beset with so many divisions that it is hardly functioning. The mayor has demanded the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Kurds to the city, prompting the Arab deputy mayor to demand a new council. The Turkomans on the council have threatened to boycott council meetings until the mayor orders Kurdish flags to be removed from various areas in the city, an issue that has precipitated armed clashes. The Christians have complained about under-representation, and Arab Shiite clerics arrived in Kirkuk to 'protect' the small Shiite Turkoman community, which is not represented in the council.

To achieve sustainable democracy in Iraq, then, particularistic attachments to ethnicity or sect should be de-emphasized. It is extremely dangerous to create in Iraq —as Kurdish leaders in particular are demanding— three federal units based on ethnic or sectarian exclusivity: a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni center. Such a division highlights and would entrench ethnic and sectarian affiliations and attitudes, leading to highly undesirable outcomes ranging from ethnic cleansing to inflexibility in political bargaining among the federal units and between them and the capital.

Instead, a new political structure must alleviate the fear that one group will come to power and impose its interests and goals on the other groups through a strong central government. Thus, a decentralized federal system on the basis of territory, rather than on ethnicity or sect, is the best alternative for Iraq.

Creating territorially based federalism and enshrining it in the constitution allows local governments to have responsibility for all citizens in their areas, not just for ethnic or sectarian co-nationals. Thus, it is far more propitious to divide Iraq administratively into more than three units, perhaps even to keep the present 18-governorate structure. Such an arrangement will serve the various communities' interests. In addition, it could spur an attitudinal change away from blatant ethnic and sectarian concerns to more secular and political priorities that would be brought about by the inevitable competition for resources, even among the units within each community.

Iraq's ethnic and sectarian diversity is usually assumed to be an impediment to building a stable democratic structure. But this very diversity could provide the checks and balances that would promote democracy at the expense of rigid communal particularism. And the best administrative framework in which this can develop is territorially-based federalism.

Adeed Dawisha is Professor of Political Science at Miami University, Ohio and author of Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton University Press, 2003).