As the elections end, the hard work of constructing the new Iraq begins. While Iraqi voters can congratulate themselves on a remarkable achievement in the face of extraordinary difficulties, the situation remains precarious. Voting took place mainly (though not wholly) along ethnic and sectarian lines, and centrists with a pan-Iraqi focus did poorly. Now delegates of the new 275-member Assembly must come together to develop a constitutional framework for all of Iraq. If they succeed, Iraq’s situation will begin to turn around; if not, the state itself, to say nothing of its democratic future, will be in jeopardy.

Four issues will be of paramount importance: Kurdish self-rule and decentralization, religion’s role in the state, bringing Sunnis into a national consensus, and relations with the United States and the coalition forces. Of the four, the Kurdish issue may be the most important. While mainstream Iraqi politicians agree that some form of decentralized government or federalism is needed, they disagree about how to satisfy Kurdish aspirations while keeping the state intact. The two dominant Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, call for a confederation between an Iraqi Kurdistan and an Arab Iraq, an arrangement that the Arab majority and minorities in the north will resist. At issue is how much authority the Kurdish Regional Government would have in its territory as well as how best to reintegrate the Kurds, who have been isolated since 1991, into national life.

The Kurds would also like to enlarge the territory they control to include Kirkuk and towns and villages along the Jabal Hamrin south to Khanaqin—territory they claim has a Kurdish majority. Kurds are fairly adamant about Kirkuk, but other Iraqis will not give up the oil-rich province easily. Moreover, Kirkuk is home to a mixed population of Turkomans, Christians, and Arabs as well as Kurds. Kirkuk is a potential flashpoint that can be settled by giving a dominant role to the local communities, who have been able to live together peaceably in the past.

Even beyond the Kurds, Iraqis in other areas (Basra, for example) have begun talking about a federal arrangement—an Iraq divided into four or five large blocs of territory with Baghdad as a central hub. This kind of decentralization is new to Iraq and suggests Lebanonization. Most Arabs, especially the newly emerging Shiite majority, want to govern a unified Iraq and will seek to avoid such an outcome.

A second major debate will center on the role of Sharia (Islamic law) in the new Constitution. Few Iraqis want a theocratic state along the Iranian model with clerics governing, but Sharia could be enshrined in the Constitution as one source or even the primary source of law. Such a development would mostly affect personal status laws. Strong Islamic currents will push in this direction, among them the two Shiite parties (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Dawa) in the winning United Iraqi Alliance. But the counterweight of secular forces, chiefly among the Kurds and a number of educated Sunnis and Shiites, suggests that some compromise will be found. Women, who should comprise about one-third of the legislature, may also be in a position to press for their rights.

The third critical issue is how the new government will handle the disenfranchisement of Sunnis, essential to eventually ending the insurgency. Although Sunnis are expected to be underrepresented—perhaps dramatically—in the Assembly, they can be drawn into the constitutional process informally. Shiite and Kurdish reluctance to make peace with former Baathists and Iraqi army officers will be an obstacle, but if no accommodation is made, the insurgency will continue to sap the energy and resources needed to build a new Iraq.

Last is the question of how to deal with the United States and the coalition forces, an important issue for the longer term but perhaps the least contentious for now. A weak new government that must maintain itself in power, face an insurgency, and create some stability for development is unlikely to call for the immediate withdrawal of foreign forces. A flexible status-of-forces agreement that points the way to a departure as soon as possible would probably finesse this issue for the moment.

The elections have given Iraqis a sense of ownership of the political process and a new measure of self-confidence. But elections have not solved the fundamental, even existential, problems of the country, which must be addressed via the constitutional process. Iraq’s future as a nascent democracy depends on whether the new delegates can compromise on their separate agendas. To accomplish this they will need to revive a lost sense of Iraqi identity and a shared purpose in rebuilding their torn country—together.

Phebe Marr is a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed are her own. The U.S. Institute of Peace is an independent organization created and funded by Congress to promote research, education, and training on the prevention, management and resolution of international conflicts. Marr is also the author of The Modern History of Iraq, Second Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003).