Iraqi voters are preparing to cast ballots in national parliamentary elections this Sunday (7 March).
The election will be the second legislative vote since the United States-led overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, and a key test of Iraq's security following years of war and sectarian fighting.
"Security is the number one concern," said Nir Rosen, fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security, who has just returned from Iraq on a trip for Refugees International.
"They've emerged from the trauma of the civil war, which began to decline in 2007-2008, and that trauma still lingers very much, although people talk about the civil war sometimes as if it was a distant era," Rosen said.
"They describe it as 'events,' 'I lost my home in the events,' or 'my father was killed in the sectarianism,' as if that's all over," Rosen explained.
Iraqi authorities have warned of a possible rise in violence from insurgents attempting to disrupt the vote. On Thursday, insurgent attacks claimed the lives of at least 15 people in Baghdad. The previous day, at least 31 people were killed in three suicide bombings in the northern city of Baquba.
SECURITY AND THE U.S. PULLOUT
The elections occur as U.S. troops continue their preparations for withdrawal from Iraq. All American combat forces are scheduled to leave by August, and support troops and training staff will depart by 2011.
"The stability in Iraq is still underwritten by the U.S. presence there," said Pete Hegseth, executive director of the organization Vets for Freedom, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2005-2006. "U.S. troops, while drawing down, are still highly involved in partnering with their Iraqi counterparts in securing polling stations and making sure that the environment is not a violent one for the elections."
The decline in violence following the U.S. troop surge in 2007 helped to ease Iraq's ethnic tensions, according to Hegseth. But he remains critical of the established timeline that calls for a complete withdrawal of American troops by 2011.
"My reaction is that timelines are, in general, not a good thing," said Hegseth. "Telling your enemy when you're going to leave allows your enemy or enemies on the ground or within or outside of government the opportunity to set your watch to when you're leaving and adjust accordingly."
U.S. military officials this week stressed that only a dire situation in Iraq would compel the Pentagon to slow the withdrawal of American troops from the country.