BAGHDAD, Iraq—Plastered on the pervasive blast walls that protect buildings on nearly every major thoroughfare in Baghdad are dozens of poster-sized ads in rows, aimed at winning over passing motorists. Some have pictures of smiling politicians, while others show stone-faced religious leaders whose dogma could shape the next government.
Iraqis will head to the polls Thursday for a National Assembly election that could offer a last chance to move a country that's rife with sectarian division and violence toward reconciliation and stability. If all works well, the elections might pave the way toward starting an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"In the aftermath of the elections, and with the growth that I see in the Iraq security forces, we can begin to reduce the size of the U.S. forces and change the mission more to one of supporting Iraqi forces," the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Arabic press last week.
Khalilzad also said the U.S. government hoped that Iraq's first permanent democratic parliament would be a representative body in which the majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds could iron out their differences, erode popular support for rogue militias and Sunni insurgency groups, and unify the country.
Even with Iraq's entrenched violence and ethnic strife, that vision may not be out of reach. Many Sunni groups that boycotted the elections last January—handing the government to the rival Shiites—are running candidates now and urging others to vote. If they win enough seats, they could force Shiite politicians to negotiate and compromise on legislation, possibly drawing many people who support the insurgency or are sitting on the sidelines into a political process.
Yet the election just as easily could produce a stalemate that drives Iraq's warring ethnic groups farther apart and pushes the nation toward outright civil war and disintegration.
With more than 7,000 candidates running for 275 assembly seats on 400 slates, handicapping the results has proved impossible.
"We are all going to be surprised," said Hassan Bazzaz, a professor of political science and international relations at Baghdad University and frequent U.S. adviser. "This situation is so complicated."
Electing a prime minister or passing changes to the constitution will require a two-thirds majority in the new assembly. But it's unlikely that any single ethnic group or political party can muster the votes to win that many seats, requiring compromise and coalition in order for the government to function.
Leading the field is the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite slate, which is expected to win the most seats in part because Shiites make up 60 percent of the country's populace. The alliance holds a majority of seats in the current temporary assembly, which was elected in January to craft a constitution.
Yet it's unlikely to win a majority of seats this time. In this election, Sunnis, 20 percent of the population, are expected to vote in greater numbers than before and take many more seats than the 17 they won last time. Many of those new Sunni seats will come at the expense of the United Iraqi Alliance.
In addition, Iraq's most important Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, has refrained this time from endorsing the alliance slate, effectively freeing Shiites who regard his word as law to consider other choices.
Homam al Hamoodi, a member of the alliance slate, said its goal was to win one-third of the seats, enough to block legislation but not enough to impose its views.
Guessing the size and shape of pieces of the puzzle is impossible, as is guessing how they might fit together to form a government.
The alliance has promised to give the government an Islamic identity and devolve power to localities in a federal system that Sunnis strongly oppose.
Shiite leaders claim they can pull the country together.
"They say we don't unite the country. Look at all these supporters," the leading Shiite candidate, Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, said Thursday, looking out over a rally of more than 10,000 supporters in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Yet the Shiite candidates often stoke ethnic strife. At the same rally, another Shiite candidate suggested that if Shiites didn't vote for their slate, Sunni tyrants would run Iraq, much as they did under Saddam Hussein's regime. Saddam was a Sunni, as was much of his government.
"Those who fought you before are now sneaking back in under false banners and slogans," Hussein Shahristani said, referring to Sunnis. "We will not allow another tyrant to rule Iraq."
Opponents of the United Iraqi Alliance also play on sectarian worries by criticizing the current National Assembly for installing leaders who they claim answered to clerics, not ordinary voters.
"I think the Shiites want a theocracy," said Adnan Pachachi, a prominent Sunni politician who served on Iraq's Governing Council before January's election.
The Sunnis have told members of their base that they must vote if they want a voice in government. They've promised a centralized government that controls Iraq's oil wealth—which lies mainly under Shiite and Kurdish lands—and reaches out to neighboring Arab states, most of which are majority Sunni, rather than to Iran, which is mostly Shiite.
While they reject the idea of a government run by Shiite clerics, many Sunni parties endorse the notion of an Islamist state that would transform Iraq's previously secular character.
To achieve that, the Sunnis "... will try to rewrite the constitution from A to Z," said Alaa Makki of the Iraq Concordance Front, a leading Sunni electoral slate.
How much influence Sunnis win in the election could determine how much they depend on Sunni insurgent groups to fight for them, Bazzaz said.
"They realize they have to use the politics with the gun. They realize that doing things with guns alone is not enough," he said.
Essam al Rawi, a member of the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni religious group, said that if the new National Assembly has more Sunni representation, "It will definitely reduce the violence ravaging Iraq."
While the major parties are religious, there also is a burgeoning secular political faction whose most prominent slate is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime favorite among civilian Pentagon leaders to run Iraq, also is running as a secular Shiite at the head of his own slate.
Secularists claim that Iraqis are tired of religion-based politics and that the nation can't modernize under a theocracy. They think that the best way to build the country is by developing a strong market economy.
"We tell our supporters that they had a government under religious authority and look what happened," Pachachi said. "Everything got worse."
Bazzaz said the secularists could become a decisive swing bloc, depending on how many seats they won.
Allawi, who won 12 percent of the vote in January, "will do a lot better than before," he said.
The highly organized Kurds, also 20 percent of the population, are likely to retain their strength in the new assembly, U.S. and Iraqi political scientists have predicted. But, while they enjoyed a stable alliance with Shiites during the last assembly, they could see their influence pared back in a partnership with a group of smaller parties. That could increase the already intense pressure among Kurds to split off into their own independent nation, a move that would alarm neighboring Turkey, which has its own restive Kurdish population.
Predicting when the results will be known is as difficult as predicting what they'll be. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq said it didn't know how long it would take to count the votes.
(Knight Ridder special correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051209 USIRAQ ELECTION, 20051209 Mideast government