Can democracy work in Iraq?

After a labored and bloody year, democracy will fully be born Thursday in Iraq. Whether it will live is unknown.

For the third time this year, Iraqis will cast votes in a national election that could propel the war-weary country further toward self-determination, representative government and peace. Or it could provide the push for ethnically and religiously divided Iraq to descend into full-out civil war.

“The coming year could be a tipping point that will show whether Iraq will slowly succeed or fall apart,” said Phebe Marr, author of “The Modern History of Iraq” and a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington.

Here, in Q&A format, is a look at some of the issues and stakes of the election, which include the future for U.S. troops in Iraq:

Q: What are Iraqis voting for?

A: After the Jan. 30 election of a temporary legislature and the Oct. 15 referendum on a constitution, voters this time will select a permanent 275-seat parliament to be called the Council of Representatives.

In all, more than 200 political groups _ representing more than 7,000 candidates _ will compete. Iraq’s estimated 15 million registered voters will be able to cast ballots at nearly 6,300 polling places. The 11,000 detainees held by U.S. forces have been given the opportunity to vote. Even former strongman Saddam Hussein, now on trial in Baghdad on war-crimes charges, is eligible to participate because he is not a convicted felon.

Q: What will the turnout be?

A: Experts at the Council on Foreign Relations and other think tanks believe that this election will bring the biggest turnout ever.

In the earlier contests, more than 58 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, but they were predominantly Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, who live mostly in the northern and southern reaches of the country. Together they make up more than two-thirds of Iraq’s population and, because each group suffered under Saddam, they voted in droves and won most of the interim-legislature seats.

Either cowed by threats from insurgents to kill those who voted _ or boycotting the ballot in protest of the U.S. occupation and in support of Saddam _ most Iraqi Sunnis stayed home. But in recent months, some influential Sunni leaders began encouraging their countrymen to turn out this time in what U.S. officials call a major breakthrough.

“That is really the single most important development of the past several months, politically,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters this week, adding a prediction that Sunni slates would win three times more than the 17 seats they have now.

Q: Who are the major players?

A: Iraqis will be choosing between slates, or lists, of candidates who are running under the umbrellas of dozens of political parties or coalitions. The stakes are higher than they have been before because voters will decide parliament’s makeup for the next four years.

The biggest winner in the earlier election was the United Iraqi Alliance, which was endorsed by the country’s most powerful Shiia cleric, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. The slate includes conservative Shiia religious leaders, who won half the vote in January and are expected to dominate this one as well.

The Kurdistan Coalition also swept the earlier ballot, winning 75 seats. This group wants to preserve the large measure of autonomy now held by the Kurds in the northern sector of Iraq, and to take control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

There are two Sunni coalitions _ the Iraqi Accord Front and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. Both favor a U.S. withdrawal, but the first is allied with Islamist interests and the latter is more secular.

Also competing will be Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime U.S. ally who has been discredited in Washington for hyping information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a pragmatic neurologist, is also on the ballot but is unlikely to draw substantial support despite heading an anti-Islamist coalition of Shiias, Sunnis and Kurds.

Q: What does the election mean for U.S. troops?

A: It carries potentially enormous stakes for them. If the balloting, and the subsequent weeks of Iraqi political wrangling to come up with a new prime minister and an amended constitution go relatively smoothly, a planned withdrawal of about 20,000 of the current 155,000 troops there will take place.

Whether more leave next year will depend in part on the new Iraqi leadership. Most contenders say they want an end to the U.S. occupation, although all but a few do not want the troops to exit before Iraqi police and soldiers are prepared to replace them.

Though the Bush administration has refused to establish any timetable for withdrawal, it may be faced with just such a demand from the new government and left with little option but to agree.

But if the insurgent violence morphs into a broader civil war, all bets are off.

Q: What’s next?

A: The new parliament will immediately meet to begin the process of selecting a permanent president and prime minister, who then will appoint a new cabinet. Experts expect this period to be at least as rancorous as it was when the temporary government was created in January.

Then, what could be an even more contentious chapter opens _ efforts by Sunni politicians to amend the Iraqi constitution. Wrangling over what that document should include nearly led to the collapse of the interim government last October.

On Wednesday, President Bush cautioned that “days of uncertainty” lie ahead and called for patience. “It’s … going to take a while for them to form a government,” he said.

Jon Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes the uncertainty will last much longer.

“I think we’re gong to have the electoral returns next week, but it’s probably going to be six months until we understand what the results of the elections will be,” Alterman said at a Dec. 8 press briefing.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)