BAGHDAD - Billed as a key test of Iraq's nascent democracy, Iraqis fear today's parliamentary election will lead to a protracted period of uncertainty as the winners and losers try to cobble together a new government - even as American forces prepare to go home.
None of the main political coalitions are expected to win an outright majority, which could mean months of negotiations and more violence despite hopes the balloting will boost efforts to reconcile Iraq's divided ethnic and religious groups.
Iraq's second nationwide election for a full parliamentary term comes at a vastly different time than the first in December 2005. The United States, which has lost more than 4,300 troops in the nearly 7-year conflict, has fewer than 100,000 troops in the country, and their presence on the streets has all but vanished. The monthly American death toll has plummeted.
Overall violence is down dramatically, although attacks continue and insurgents have threatened voters. A car bomb targeted Iraqi and Iranian pilgrims in the Shia holy city of Najaf yesterday, killing at least three people and wounding more than 50, officials said.
The balloting for a new 325-seat legislature has been billed as a major step in Iraq's democratic evolution. Iraqis hope it will help them achieve national reconciliation at a time when the United States has vowed to stick to President Barack Obama's withdrawal timetable.
Sunday's elections start the clock on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, with 50,000 soldiers remaining in an advisory role after Aug. 31 and all of them gone by the end of 2011, if current plans hold. The elections are, in a sense, the final act of a U.S.-led invasion.
But many observers have predicted it could take months for rival factions to form a new government. The instability also would leave the door open for more violence as political groups that don't get what they want at the negotiating table take to the streets.
In a surprise move, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a rare public appearance yesterday. Speaking from Tehran, al-Sadr urged Iraqis to turn out in large numbers and support those who were "faithful" to the Iraqi people.
U.S. forces will be providing surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence for the vote, but Iraqi forces will be in the lead, said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.
Much will hinge on how legitimate Iraqis feel the elections are.
With MCT News Service