Everyone who looks at Iraq sees a nation divided between Shia, Sunni and Kurd communities. But an equally fundamental division -- one that has contributed as much to the ongoing insurrection as sectarian strife and opposition to the American-led military occupation -- is the widening gap between Iraq's rich and poor.
When Iraq was liberated, most people, especially the poor, began to hope for a charismatic leader who would save them from the bitter reality of daily life. Raised in fear, they had no idea how democracy could apply to their society, or how human-rights groups and other civic organizations could help shape the future.
Soon enough, Iraq was faced with a new social divide. On one side stood people who understood how to operate in a democracy, attain power and realize their ambitions. They learned to speak the language of democracy, gaining money and influence in the process and enlisting independent organizations to defend their rights and privileges.
On the other side, however, remains the vast population of powerless Iraqis, including widows and divorced or abandoned women with no one to provide for them and their children.
For these people, democracy and human rights mean nothing. They are ignorant, poor, and sick. Victimized by an educational system that collapsed over a decade ago, they have few skills that can help them find employment in Iraq's blighted economy.
During former president Saddam Hussein's reign, no effort was made to raise living standards for the poor. I have visited the huge slums of Iraq and found families living in homes with barely a roof to cover them, with infestations of insects everywhere and with raw sewage seeping under their doors. Day or night, they live in darkness.
Needing nothing more than food, decent housing, and the possibility of a job, these families wait for death, dreading the cries of their starving children.
When I met the women who live in those houses, they showered me with questions: Will democracy give us food and houses? Will democracy stop men from beating their wives? Will it give citizenship to our children? Will it give us the right to divorce the husbands who abandon us?
My answer to all of these questions was "yes." Yes, democracy will give you the right to live in a decent house, the right to learn and work, and it will give citizenship to your children and make you equal with your men. But you have to work hard and make every possible effort in demanding your rights.
They replied, "Saddam taught us for 35 years how to be jobless, silent and fearful. What can we do now?"
In these destitute areas, where most Iraqis live, people are prey to bitter temptations. Many are beyond the reach of political or government leaders. They fall easily into violence, theft and sabotage.
Poverty drives some to take money in exchange for acts of violence, abetted by the lure of a false heroism that they were not able to act upon during Saddam's long reign. Poverty has exacerbated the trauma of Iraq's violent history of wars and atrocities, which has desensitized people to killing.
jobs and housing
Though conditions in Iraq today are drawing many young men toward violence, I am convinced that we need only to provide decent jobs and housing to save them. Jobs, in particular, will help young people to create new lives through serious work.