With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq coming later this year, Sunday's parliamentary elections there take on added importance. The elections mark a new step in Iraq's political evolution, but will that be a step forward or backwards? The answer could have profound implications for Iraq and the United States.
Despite some new bombings and continuing sectarian divisions, hopes are high that Iraq can stage an election that is clean and relatively peaceful. But will political factions, most of which are organized along sectarian or ethnic lines, come together to consolidate their fledgling democracy? Or will the country slide back into old habits of feuding and violence?
There are both hopeful and troubling signs. Former deputy national security advisor for Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, points out the electoral field is more diverse than it was in 2005.
"If you compare the political coalitions or parties from 2005 to today you see something positive, that in fact you do not have parties that are exclusively sectarian in nature," she said. "Instead of having one big Shia party, as you did in the last two elections, you have a couple of Shia parties. Instead of having one Kurdish party, you have two Kurdish parties likely to garner significant votes. And you have different Sunni entities. So basically we can expect that the vote is going to be spread among a greater number of parties."
Former National Security Council Iraq director Charles Dunne says Iraqi voters are starting to look beyond just their identity as Shia, Sunni or Kurd in making their political decisions.
"The sectarian tensions in Iraq, I think, have always been there and are always going to be there," noted Dunne. "The encouraging thing is, since the provincial elections in 2009, people have begun to move away from strict identification with sectarian politics and more towards identification with who can deliver the goods and services, who can provide security, who can provide electricity, who can provide water."
But Kamran Bokhari, chief Middle East analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says ethnic and sectarian identity is still a key determinant in Iraqi political calculations.
"This is a situation in flux. Sure, people want better governance and we see every party sort of moving towards that. But at the end of the day there are concerns among the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds regarding ethnicity," said Bokhari. "For the Sunnis, they have not seen themselves getting a fair share of the political pie in Baghdad. That means that they cannot just drop the sectarian card and say, 'Well, we are just going to look for good governance. Who is going to provide us good governance?' And, 'We are not going to look at the sectarian thing."
Sectarian and ethnic tensions were reinforced when a Shiite-dominated parliamentary committee disqualified 511 Sunni candidates for alleged connections to Sadaam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has been trying to position himself as a non-sectarian nationalist candidate, endorsed the move, which Sunnis saw as a blatant power play by Shiites. But Sunnis are not planning to boycott these elections, as they did in 2005.
What may also be a factor in the outcome is a new system of voting. In 2005 Iraq used a closed-list system, which allowed voters to cast ballots for a party, but not specific candidates. The idea was to protect candidates from assassination.
This time, Iraq is employing the open-list system used in last year's provincial elections, in which voters can pick either a party or a candidate and his party.
About the only prediction heard is that no single party will emerge a clear winner, which will set off a long round of political wheeling and dealing.
Charles Dunne says that will be the most dangerous period for Iraq, and the United States.
"What happens after the elections and particularly in the formation of the Iraqi government, which as you know took five months the last time in 2005 to come to an agreement on who the major figures would be, that is going to be the period of maximum tension," added Dune. "And that is where the United States is going to have to make a lot of decisions, in conjunction with the Iraqi government, about what their force levels are going to be and what their withdrawal schedule is going to be."
U.S. combat forces are scheduled to be pulled out of Iraq by the end of August. If political negotiations drag on, they would bump up against that timetable. But the Obama administration is adamant that, barring some calamity, the withdrawal will proceed as planned.
Kamran Bokhari says with political headaches at home on health care, and foreign policy dilemmas like Iran and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has a lot riding on success in Iraq.
"From the point of view of the Obama administration sticking to that timetable is very important. He needs to be able to say that, 'Look, I promised I would pull out of Iraq. We have pulled out of Iraq or we are making progress towards that.' Everything depends on this election and the formation of the government," said Bokhari.
Analysts say the United States does not have the political clout in Iraq that it once had, and what it does have should be used with a gentle and deft hand.