The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq says he is optimistic a large number of Iraq's 15 million registered voters will cast ballots in this Thursday's parliamentary election. The turnout is expected to include the Sunnis, who had boycotted elections in January.
Although Sunni Muslims make up only about 40 percent of Iraq's population, they dominated the country under Saddam Hussein. They lost power when he was deposed and Sunni-backed forces now make up a large portion of Iraq's violent insurgency.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad says he believes that although Iraq is currently polarized along sectarian lines, he expects Sunnis to participate in the parliamentary elections in large numbers. He spoke on the ABC television program This Week.
"They will be represented in the assembly in the way they have not been before," said Mr. Khalilzad. "And, this assembly, the coming assembly, will deal with many key issues, including amending the constitution within the first six months, which could make the constitution more broadly acceptable to the Sunnis, as well as dealing with some of the other issues that you raised, reforming the military institutions, the police institutions."
Shia Muslims make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population. Ambassador Khalilzad said he hopes Sunni participation in the Iraqi political process means that internal Sunni-Shia differences can be resolved peacefully.
"And, the fact that the Sunnis are participating indicates confidence, perhaps growing confidence, that the problems they have with each other, with the Shias, can be dealt with politically," he added. "And that is what we are hoping for. That is what we are counting on. And that will be very important if it happens."
Ambassador Khalilzad said he believes U.S. troops can be reduced "significantly" following the election, but he said U.S. military commanders will determine specific numbers.
Iraqi presidential adviser Qubad Talabani, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said a speedy pullout of U.S. troops could be devastating for his country.
"I think if there is a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, without building up the necessary capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, we could be facing a civil war and a deterioration of the situation in Iraq," he said.
Mr. Talabani, who spoke on CNN's Late Edition, said he believes more Sunnis will participate in the electoral process because they regret boycotting the January elections and want a greater role in helping shape key political decisions.
Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Biden said even if there is a large turnout, the election will be just the first step in Iraq's political future.
"The real deal here is the constitution," he said. "Four to six months later, there is going to be a vote on the constitution. That is either going to be a document of division or a document of unity."
Senator Biden will be among several U.S. lawmakers who will be in Iraq as official election observers.