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A primer on the main issues surrounding Iraq's election

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A big test of President Bush's initiative to promote democracy everywhere will come Sunday in Iraq, which holds its first elections since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime nearly two years ago.

The elections are likely to be messy, like much of the political process in Iraq since Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, 2003. They could lead to civil war among Iraq's competing ethnic groups or they could mark an important step toward democracy and a stable Iraqi self-rule.

What's the election for?

Iraqis will elect an interim national assembly of 275 representatives that will have several important jobs. One key task is selecting a committee to draft a permanent constitution that will set rules for new elections next year.

It will also appoint a president and two vice presidents. Those jobs are likely to go one-each to leaders from Iraq's three main ethnic groups, the majority Shiite Muslims, the Sunni Muslim Arab minority and the Kurds. The president will appoint a prime minister to head the government. The current prime minister, Ayad Allawi, was appointed by the United States, but he has a shot at reappointment.

Why does it matter?

The election is an important step—but hardly the last—in a long process of handing control of Iraqi affairs back to the Iraqis. A general election in which citizens vote freely for people to represent them confers broad acceptance on a government like nothing else. If the voting goes well, it will achieve that, but the prospect of low participation by some of Iraq's ethnic groups, especially Sunni Muslims, is certain to undermine the government to some degree.

Who will Iraqis cast votes for?

Voters will vote not for individuals but for broad slates of candidates. The United Nations backed this kind of election in June because it argued there wasn't enough time and it would be too divisive to set up individual electoral districts with their own representatives. There are 111 slates of candidates fielding a total of 7,700 candidates. Each slate will appoint representatives to the assembly according to the percentage of the total vote it receives.

Who's likely to win?

The United Iraqi Alliance, backed by religious leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, is likely to come out on top. Allawi's slate might also do well. The downtrodden Shiites—long ruled by the Sunni minority—will be the real winner. Whether they'll steer the country in a secular or religious direction, toward Iran or the United States, remains to be seen.

Isn't there a big boycott of the election?

Yes. Major political parties representing the Sunnis, accounting for about 20 percent of the population, are boycotting the election. They say there's too much violence for their supporters to feel safe in going to the polls. That's likely to result in Sunnis getting little representation in the assembly.

Will there be a civil war?

It's possible. The Sunnis are the main force behind the insurgency, and they've launched frequent attacks on the Shiites. If the Sunnis get few representatives in the government, support for the insurgency could grow. At the same time there are proposals for fixes after the election, such as appointing Sunnis to the assembly, making sure they're on committees drafting the constitution and seeing that they get important Cabinet posts in the government. Sunnis might be persuaded to support the permanent constitution and join elections at that time.

How did this election come about?

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, was in 2003 working on a complicated system of caucuses to select a national assembly that would write a permanent constitution. Iraqi's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, said no and insisted on direct elections. He prevailed and the result is Sunday's election.

Will U.S. troops start pulling out after the election?

Probably not. Bush has vowed to stay as long as needed. The election coalition most likely to dominate the vote has dropped demands for the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal. The training of Iraqi security forces has been going slowly and post-election violence is widely predicted.

Key players on the ballot:

_ The United Iraqi Alliance: The Shiite-dominated ticket is led by a prominent, Iran-backed cleric and helped by the tacit endorsement of Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric. The slate, which also includes former Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi, is favored for the most seats in the national assembly. Downside: It's criticized for its close ties to Iran and for a highly sectarian campaign.

_ Iraqi List: This secular slate is led by the interim prime minister, Allawi, and is the chief rival of the United Iraqi Alliance. Allawi, a secular Shiite, chose prominent Cabinet members, technocrats and some token clerics as running mates. Allawi's high name recognition and incumbency give the list a boost, though candidates are widely viewed as backed by U.S. funding and advisers.

_ Iraqis Party List: The list led by interim Iraqi President Ghazi al Yawar hasn't run a notable campaign, but it represents the strongest ticket led by Sunnis, who are expected to stay away from the polls in high numbers. Yawar has been a figurehead president, overshadowed by Allawi, and his list isn't seen as particularly organized or powerful. The list includes several influential tribal leaders and some Cabinet members.

_ Kurdish Alliance List: The slate puts forth a unified front for Iraq's Kurdish minority, whose main concerns are keeping its semiautonomous northern region and taking control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The list unites traditional rival factions—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—and is expected to own the vote of Iraq's Kurds, estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent of the population.

_ People's Union: The Iraqi Communist Party, Iraq's oldest and perhaps most organized political party, is the foundation for this bloc. These leftists, mostly prominent Iraqi intellectuals, staunchly opposed the war and occupation and are now running one of the only campaigns free of ethnic or religious groupings. They're likely to fare well with exile voters, but are seen as overshadowed by religious candidates in Iraq.

_ Assembly of Independent Democrats: This list is led by Adnan Pachachi, considered the Sunni Muslim elder statesman of Iraqi politics. He served as Iraq's foreign minister until the Baathists seized power in 1968. Some critics feel his age (he's in his 80s) leaves him out of touch, and he's also lost supporters who feel he should've joined other influential Sunnis in withdrawing from the elections to protest U.S. military actions in Sunni territories.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050125 Iraq glance, 20050124 USIRAQ election

Iraq

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