Millions of Iraqis are scheduled to begin the process of selecting a new democratically elected government on Sunday. The elections in Iraq have sparked debate on whether the United States should set a timetable for withdrawing troops from the country.
About 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in the election for a National Assembly. The assembly will select a Presidency Council consisting of a president and two vice presidents. The council will then choose a prime minister and members of the cabinet.
The National Assembly will also draft Iraq's new constitution, which is scheduled to be in place by October of this year.
While conceding that some Iraqi voters may not go to the polls because of the insurgency in the country, President Bush calls the election "a grand moment for those who believe in freedom."
"I urge all people to vote," he said. "I urge people to defy these terrorists. These terrorists do not have the best interests of the Iraqi people in mind. They have no positive agenda. They have no clear view of a better future. They are afraid of a free society. I am impressed by the bravery of the Iraqi citizens."
Bathsheba Crocker, a specialist on Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the Iraqi elections could harden religious and ethnic tensions in the country, fuel the insurgency, and create a difficult atmosphere for different groups to compromise on important issues such as the new constitution.
However, Ms. Crocker says there have been positive indicators in the days before the election. "There is some potential, I think, for better news in the sense that there have been some encouraging signs lately that the worst case scenarios might not, in fact, unfold," she explains. "In particular, these are that Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders over the past months have given assurances that they really want to encourage and increase Sunni participation in the political process. Sunni leaders, at least some, have recently stated that they intend to join the political process after the elections, even while they are calling for a boycott of the elections. At least in some parts of the country there is extreme Iraqi interest and devotion to the idea of voting in this election."
Anthony Cordesman, the author of two recent books on Iraq and the former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, says although there are thousands of candidates running in the election, few have hands-on political experience.
"You look down the list of people here and we have over 7,000 candidates," notes Mr. Cordesman. "Most of the people on these lists have never been functioning politicians. Most of them have never administered or managed or run anything in their lives. They are, in general, ideologues, religious figures, and oppositionists. So we are drawing on a pool of people who have remarkably little practical experience and are being thrust into one of the most complex realities that anybody has ever thrown together."
As Iraqis go to the polls, some American politicians say it is time to begin debating how long U.S. troops will stay in the country. Congressman Martin Meehan (Democrat - Massachusetts) recently visited Iraq, and has developed a plan to gradually reduce the number of troops there. He is proposing a phased withdrawal of U.S. military forces during the next 12 to 18 months, leaving about 30,000 troops to assist Iraqi security forces.
"So by laying out a timetable for a phased-in withdrawal, the United States sends a clear message to Iraqis and all citizens of the world," says Mr. Meehan. "We believe that Iraq is capable of governing itself and making decisions about its future. The removal of Saddam Hussein was a victory for the United States, but lasting success in Iraq will not be achieved until the country is stable, and every American soldier has the opportunity to come home."
William Kristol, editor of the Washington-based political magazine, The Weekly Standard, argues that it would be counterproductive to set any deadlines for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
"Announcing a date simply tells the terrorists and the insurgents, I think, that they just have to hang on to this date and they have a chance to wreak more havoc," he says. "I think it dispirits our friends. I think an exit strategy, even announcing an exit strategy, or focusing on an exit strategy rather than a victory strategy is the wrong thing to do at this point."
Both the Bush administration and leaders of the interim Iraqi government have refused to set a timetable for U.S. and multi-national forces to leave the country.