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Iraq's Election: What to Watch For

The following is an election guide to Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq. Thursday and Friday I will report on interviews with two spokesmen for opposing sides of the vote.

On Saturday, January 31, Iraq will conduct its first elections since 2005, when Iraqis went to the polls to select both their national parliament and provincial councils. This time, the election will decide only the provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Still, the election is likely to be a turning point for Iraq. Which way it turns -- toward greater democracy, or toward further instability and a return of violent resistance -- depends on what happens on Saturday.

It's not a pretty picture. The elections promise to be marred by violence, fraud, intimidation, vote-buying and bribery, bloc voting by tribes and ethnic constituencies, and undue influence by Shiite clerics.

If things don't go smoothly, and if the elections don't result in gains for parties that were shut out of the political process in 2005 -- especially among Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni bloc -- then it's very likely that violence will increase once again. It's even possible that many Sunnis will return to armed resistance, and some of them will rejoin Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Viewed most broadly, the election is a test of the ability of Iraq's ruling coalition to cling to power despite having presided over a catastrophic collapse of Iraq's economy, social services, and utilities, and despite widespread public perceptions that the ruling parties are guilty of vast corruption, mismanagement, and rule by paramilitary force through party militias. The four ruling parties are the two Shiite fundamentalist religious parties, the Islamic Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the two Kurdish separatist parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). According to many sources I've interviewed, including Iraqis involved in the elections, large numbers of Iraqis view all four ruling parties with disdain. They are blamed for their inability to provide basic services such as electricity, health care, fuel, water, and trash collection, all of which are intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst. They are blamed for their mismanagement of the economy, and especially Iraq's oil, and for the unemployment rate that is estimated at 50 percent. Under ordinary circumstances, all four parties would suffer massive repudiation at the polls. But these are not ordinary circumstances.

The election is also seen as a referendum of sorts on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Dawa party is a powerful player in Saturday's vote. Although Maliki's Dawa has split and split again -- it is down to a miniscule six seats in the 275-member parliament, after schisms -- it benefits from Maliki's heavyhanded use of political power as prime minister. Despite Dawa's history as a secretive, cell-based and cult-like religious movement with obscurantist Shiite views, Maliki is drawing electoral support from Iraqis who view him as a strongman, sort of a Saddam-lite ruler, and he has recast himself as a nationalist. He's built a fiefdom in the Iraqi army, shifting and reappointing generals who support him, in a naked effort to turn the army into Dawa's private militia. He's used a pair of security organizations that report directly to the prime minister's office to carry out arrests and intimidation of rival politicians and parties, especially against Muqtada al-Sadr's allies. He's constructed paramilitary "tribal councils" in provinces all over Iraq, lavishing tens of millions of dollars in government funding on these organizations, which are in fact nothing more than outright arms of Maliki's office. And he's using the Iraqi government's state-owned media openly on his behalf.

Here's what to watch for on Saturday:

First, can the religious parties hold on? According to many accounts, liberal, nationalist, and secular Iraqis believe that the population at large is disenchanted with Dawa, ISCI and the Sadrists. Will that result in gains for parties of a distinctly secular approach, especially the party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has broad appeal to many nationalists and Sunnis? Or will the built-in advantages of Dawa and ISCI, who control the media and the government, allow them to continue as dominant forces?

Second, will the Sunnis gain power in the provinces where they are either dominant or strong? In 2005, the Sunnis boycotted the vote, and only about 2 percent of Sunni Arabs voted at all. That led to a victory for the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a fundamentalist religious party of Sunnis tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2009, many analysts expect that the IIP will be decimated. Since 2003, the IIP has cooperated with the United States and with the Kurdish-Shiite ruling alliance, so if the IIP is knocked out, expect a more militant, more nationalist force to take its place. Many of the former resistance groups, the Awakening movement, and Sunni tribal parties have formed parties for the Jan. 31 election.

Key battles will be in Mosul, capital of Nineveh province in the north; in Baghdad, the capital and a province of its own, with nearly one-fourth of Iraq's population; and Diyala province, a mixed area northeast of Baghdad.

In Nineveh province, because the Sunnis boycotted the last vote, the provincial council is controlled overwhelmingly by Kurds, who are a small minority in Nineveh, confined to eastern Mosul city. The Kurds are angling to suppress the Sunni vote, and they've even armed a Christian militia. By all accounts, though, the Sunnis ought to seize control of Nineveh. If they don't, an angry and violent resistance movement is likely to emerge in the north.

In Baghdad province, now controlled by ISCI and Dawa, there's a chance that nationalist parties, Sunnis, and secular parties can win a large number seats on Baghdad's 57-seat council, and if they make the right alliances -- say, with Sadrists -- they could oust ISCI and Dawa in the heart of the country. But Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed, and many Sunnis have been displaced. It's not clear if displaced Iraqis will be allowed to vote, or if so, for whom. If the Shiite religious parties maintain control of Baghdad, again it's possible that there will be a violent reaction from former insurgents and elements of the Awakening movement.

In Diyala province, where Sunnis and Shiites are more balanced, the outcome up for grabs. Sunni and Shiite enclaves are walled off, violence is endemic, candidates can't easily campaign or promote their parties, and the results will make no one happy. It's a tinderbox.

There is also the question of outside support. Iran is undoubtedly pouring money into support for its allies, including ISCI. To a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia is probably supporting some Sunni parties and possibly some secular parties as well. Turkey is suspected of backing the IIP. And it's hard to believe that the CIA isn't giving cash to back favored candidates.

Meanwhile, the election will be incomplete because there is no vote in disputed Tamim province, whose capital of KIrkuk is claimed by expansionist Kurds. The problem in Kirkuk is so explosive that the Iraqi government decided to put off elections there altogether. And there are no provincial elections in the three Kurdish provinces in the north, which are increasingly seen as part of a separatist, independence-minded zone -- something that both Sunni and Shiite Arabs reject.

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