As Iraqis prepare to head to the polls Sunday, many observers are asking what will happen next. Will Iraqi politicians put aside ethnic and religious differences and work towards a more stable Iraq? Or will the country spiral into further violence and bloodshed?
The vote in Iraq Sunday will be the country's first free and democratic election in 50 years. Top Bush administration officials acknowledge their dismay with the Sunni Muslim election boycott and the security situation, but emphasize that the very fact Iraq is holding an election is significant.
John Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says more important than the election is what happens next.
"Ultimately, this whole thing comes down not to electoral politics but to backroom politics," he said. "Whether people can make the deals and then sell their decisions to their supporters. That's really the key question. Not who wins the election but what comes out of the election and whether that process is going to lead to ongoing processes that begin to unify the county and lead it forward into a more stable future."
The so-called backroom politics, or negotiations, are expected to result in the formation of political coalitions that will then move ahead with nominating an Iraqi president and two vice presidents, who will then select a prime minister. The prime minister will then select the heads of Iraq's 28 ministries.
According to Michael Rubin, a former political advisor to the now disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the most coveted ministry won't be the oil or foreign ministry, but the interior ministry, responsible for Iraq's internal security.
"This time around, aside from the premiership, the ministry which is going to be most competed over, most important is going to be the Interior Ministry," he said. "Iraqis very much will compete over that. And I wouldn't be surprised if the coalition, which is agreed to in the backroom deals, centers upon who gets the Interior Ministry. And I wouldn't be surprised if that meant the Shia took it."
Mr. Rubin, who recently returned from a visit to Baghdad, believes that Iraqi politicians are pragmatists willing to make the kinds of compromises that will be needed to move the country forward. He believes that this attitude will also shape the drafting of Iraq's new constitution.
"No matter whom I spoke with, people expect the constitution will be very similar to the transitional law - a compromise, ideal to none, fair to all," he said.
The ethnic and religious diversity in Iraq has led some to speculate the country may fall into civil war. John Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Iraq may end up like Lebanon, where resources and power are divvied up along religious lines.
"It creates the threat, it seems to me, of a Lebanon-like solution in which politics basically become about the allocation of resources based on identity rather than allocation of resources based on need, competence, or merit. It didn't have to be that way but I think that's the way Iraq is going unless people can turn things around," he said.
Others, including Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle Eastern specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency, argue that Iraq will be able to cobble together a federal system of governance.
"I think what is much more likely [than a Lebanon-situation] is that you will see some form of federalism come into play," he said. "It's already there to some extent in the TAL [Transitional Administrative Law.] I think you'll see it grow in the constitution thereby guaranteeing certain authorities and rights without actually rigging the system into some sort of ethnic division. I don't think the Shia will tolerate that."
In addition, the constitution will have to deal with the role of religion in the state, particularly the role of women in society and family law. Bathsheba Crocker, co-director of the Post Conflict Resolution Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the United States should let Iraqis decide these issues on their own without U.S. interference.
"We have been unwilling to cede real control up until now, but if we continue to try to socially engineer the political process in Iraq it will not be seen as legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis, or the region or the broader Muslim world," he said.
Analysts say the elections are an important step towards a legitimate government in Iraq. A government that will earn the respect of Iraqi citizens and one that Iraqi Security Forces will be willing to fight for.