Warnings of Violence Ahead of Iraq's Election

Early voting began amidst a spate of new bombings.

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Sitting on a couch in a penthouse hotel suite just blocks from the White House, Ayad Jamal al-Din lets cigar smoke curl in lazy trails around his head as he considers the fate of his nation. "I am not hopeful that Iraq can yet fly alone," he says. It is a familiar refrain that the 49-year-old cleric, a fiercely secular Shiite, conveys to anyone in Washington who is willing to listen.

This Sunday, Iraqis will head to the polls to vote in a national election that will be pivotal to the endgame of the war launched there in 2003. Voting, amidst a new spate of bombings, has already started for the disabled and the military. The chief electoral issues are the same ones that have long mired Iraq in violence: dividing the country's immense oil revenues, the sectarian power balance, and the influence of neighboring countries, particularly Iran. Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis are still displaced, both internally and internationally.

If the election goes off relatively peacefully, the number of U.S. troops in the country is scheduled to fall to under 50,000 by the end of August. Already there are fewer than 100,000 in total, the lowest numbert since the invasion. All combat troops are slated to leave by 2011. The drawdown of U.S. forces is currently ahead of schedule, but it could be delayed if violence spikes or if there is political chaos in the aftermath of the elections, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, announced last week at the Pentagon.

Over the past year, security has been largely turned over to Iraqi forces, in keeping with the status of forces agreement hashed out by the Bush administration and Baghdad. Iraqi cities are still plagued with a crippled infrastructure and ravaged by spasms of violence—more than 400 have been killed in a spate of bombings targeting government buildings since late summer. But American soldiers are faring better; there have been only two U.S. fatalities resulting from hostile actions in Iraq in the past three months.

As the American footprint in Iraq has shrunk, the influence of neighboring countries has grown. And there are discouraging signs that some of the sectarian wounds, sutured during the past year, are again tearing open. In January, an Iraqi government panel led by Ahmad Chalabi banned hundreds of mostly Sunni politicians from standing for election on the grounds that they were too closely associated with Saddam Hussein's regime. American officials and many Iraqis fear the growing influence of Chalabi and other Shiites who are said to be linked to Iran, but they have few tools to counter it.

Three weeks ago, in the wake of the ban and reports of Iranian meddling with the upcoming vote, Iraq's second-most influential Sunni politician yanked his slate of candidates from the ballot and urged Sunnis to boycott the entire process. It's a chilling echo of a similar boycott in 2005, which preceded widespread sectarian bloodletting.

The fragility of the political situation in Baghdad, the growing influence of Iran, and the risk of renewed sectarian friction were the gist of al-Din's message to Washington. "There is not now the will, but Americans will be sorry that they have not done more to prevent Iran from strongly influencing the election," al-Din says. It is unclear, however, what, if anything, politicians inside the beltway are willing to do about it.