By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website
The election in Iraq on Sunday is emerging as yet another interim stage rather than the definitive move towards democracy as was hoped.
It remains to be seen whether the stage it marks is on a route leading to order or to chaos.
The pessimists, and one has to say that they are in the vast majority these days, point to the avalanche of violence which is overwhelming the Iraqi security forces and which will make it difficult for the Sunni population in central Iraq to get to the vote.
One persistent pessimist is Iraq watcher Toby Dodge of Queen Mary College, University of London.
The poll is not intended to be final stage of democratisation of Iraq
“The election is like rearranging the Titanic deckchairs,” he said.
“It is typical of the whole occupation which has focused on these so-called watershed events – there was the removal of Saddam, then his arrest, then the interim government.”
He added: “There is a security vacuum. Nobody controls that country. The Assembly will be debating obscure issues of democratic architecture while Iraqis want security. It will go into the Green Zone [the protected government area of Baghdad] and never come back.
“Expectations have been raised far too high by ignorance and spin.”
Optimists argue that putting Iraq back together again will take time but that it will happen.
One such optimist, one of the few in fact, is British Labour MP Ann Clwyd, a special representative of the British government for human rights in Iraq.
At a recent discussion on Iraq attended by members of parliament, she dismissed gloomy talk as “wrong” and predicted that “in five years” Iraq would be a democratic society.
“I have faith in the strength of civil society in Iraq,” she declared.
It is a mark of the state of play in Iraq that an optimist is talking of a five-year timespan for progress.
It is important to note that the election is not for a fully constitutional government so it was never intended to be the final stage of the democratisation of Iraq.
However, the hope had been that by now the insurgency would be all but over and that politics would prevail.
It has not worked out like that.
The election is for a Transitional National Assembly of 275 members. The Assembly will first have to select a president and two deputies who will then choose a prime minister and government.
The main task of the Assembly from then on will be to draw up a new constitution and it has a target date of 15 August this year. There will then be a referendum by 15 October and, if approved, the constitution will form the basis for full elections by 15 December leading to a fully constitutional government by 30 December. There are mechanisms for a delay in the whole process of up to a year.
One major problem already on the horizon is the likely lack of Sunni representation in the Assembly. Some Sunnis are boycotting the vote and others may be afraid to take part given the climate of violence in the areas they inhabit.
By contrast, the Shias are taking part with some enthusiasm. So are the third main group, the Kurds.
A senior British official said recently that Sunni representation would be a major issue for the next few months. It is likely that senior Sunni politicians will have to be co-opted to whatever committees are formed to debate the constitutional text.
All this will have to take place in a context of turbulence whose impact cannot easily be predicted.
Another major issue is going to be the future of the US and other foreign troops. The Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, likely to form the heart of the new government, wants a timetable for withdrawal, though it has not said what timeframe it has in mind.
There will also be a Security Council ordered review of the troops’ role in June, the anniversary of the resolution which authorised them.
But this is a delicate business. It can be argued that the foreign troops fuel the insurgency. But others say that a precipitate withdrawal could lead to a civil war, as happened when the British left India in 1948.
Iraq could then split into its three parts – Sunni, Shia and Kurd.
For all these reasons, the elections on Sunday will not mark the end of the road.