Elections will alter political landscape
Sunnis and other minorities should make gains in parliament
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqis started the year with a historic transitional assembly election. They voted for a constitution in October. And on Thursday they will cap their tumultuous year when many are expected vote for a full four-year parliament.
"All Iraqis are desperate to be free of their extended nightmare," said Ashraf Qazi, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative in Iraq.
"And these elections will hopefully provide them a golden opportunity to begin the process of healing the wounds and coming together to build a new Iraq in which there will be no victims."
As many as 10 million people are expected to go to the polls, despite the possibility of violence. They will choose a Council of Representatives, a 275-member body that will shape the legacy and policies of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
This government should differ from the transitional government elected in January by a straight national total.
This time, smaller entities have a better chance because the elections will be allocated among Iraq's 18 provinces, much like the U.S. House of Representatives is divided, with the most populous states having the largest contingents.
President Bush, in a Monday speech in the historic city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, looked forward to greater participation by Sunni Arabs, a religious minority that wielded great power during Hussein's reign.
"This new system is encouraging more Sunnis to join in the democratic process, because it ensures that Sunnis will be well represented even if the terrorists and Saddamists try to intimidate voters in the provinces where most Sunnis live," Bush said.
The electoral structure will give Sunni Arabs a boost because they are sure win to some seats in provinces where they make up most or much of the population. (Watch as soldiers vote early so they can patrol during elections -- 2:27)
When most Sunnis boycotted January's elections, they gained only a handful of seats in the transitional government.
Sunnis should gain the nine seats in Anbar province and eight seats in Salaheddin. They could win more seats in other ethnically mixed areas -- such as Baghdad, Nineveh, Diyala, Tameem and Babil -- and under a formula that allots 45 spots according to political entities' share of the national and overseas vote.
Still, Shiite Arabs and Kurds are expected to continue to dominate the parliament, with analysts forecasting the ruling Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and its Kurdish allies to win the most votes.
The coalition list of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and supporters of controversial Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could gain enough votes to be powerbrokers, Western diplomats say.
Christians, Turkmens, Shiite Kurds, communists and other political characters all have a better shot of tasting and gaining power, observers say.
At least 25 percent of all seats must be held by women.
Who's on the ballot
Three kinds of political entities are on the ballot -- coalitions, independent political parties, and independent candidates.
Nineteen political coalitions -- each made up of various political parties -- and 307 different political entities have registered, according to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.
There are several outlets for Sunni Arabs to participate.
For example, they can choose candidates from two important Sunni Arab coalitions.
One is the Iraqi Accord Front, which includes the influential Iraqi Islamic Party. The other is a coalition led by Saleh al-Mutlag, who was a prominent Sunni Arab voice in the government during the transitional period.
The political coalitions led by Allawi and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi -- both secular Shiite Arabs -- are reaching out to Sunnis. One prominent Sunni Arab, Adnan Pachachi, has aligned himself with Allawi's list.
Western officials believe that along with the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance blocs, Allawi's coalition and the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accord Front will have strong showings.
Al-Sadr, whose militia fought U.S. and coalition troops during 2004, is considered a powerful figure in the political process he once shunned. There is a pro-Sadr party in the UIA and another outside the UIA.
Also, in the UIA, the al-Sadr presence is equal to that of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, considered the strongest Shiite Arab political party in Iraq.
Al-Sadr's movement is gaining in political confidence, and in turn his armed followers stir worry among U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, urged his followers to vote for a big coalition led by a religionist and to avoid choosing smaller parties or lists. Some saw that as a message to vote against Allawi.
Kurds -- most of whom are Sunnis -- could lose seats as well to the Sunni Arabs and other groups.
After the election the new parliament will go about the business of picking a Cabinet and presidential council, and the backroom coalition politics are expected to be intense and prolonged.
In fact, discussions among some groups have already begun.
Election results probably won't be final until the end of December, at the earliest.
Lawmakers also will work on changing Iraq's Constitution, which is considered a working document that Sunnis would like to amend.
CNN's Kevin Flower, Aneesh Raman and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.
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