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Elections for a new Iraqi national assembly are likely to go ahead in most of the country on 30 January, although observers continue to warn that an unbalanced result will lead to questions over the assembly's legitimacy.

The 275 members of the assembly will be drawn from national election lists compiled by major political factions. This system will guarantee seats for prominent Iraqis but is likely to skew the assembly in favor of Iraqi Kurds, who are voting in Iraq's most secure region.

Sunni voters are unlikely to turn out in large numbers, despite the best efforts of the US and Iraq’s Arab neighbours to promote Sunni Arab participation. Some will boycott the elections, while others will be kept at home by fears of violence and reprisals. Voting will be particular difficult in four provinces in central and western Iraq where fighting has been most fierce; the government is allowing Iraqis to register and vote at the same time to promote a higher turnout.

This month US ambassador John Negroponte met the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a hardline group of Sunni clerics which called for a boycott of the vote, to encourage the association to put forward candidates. Jordan, which has strong ties with Sunni Arabs in central and western Iraq, has also tried to encourage greater Sunni participation.

However, it is a good sign that the Sunni boycott has not be absolutely universal: several senior Sunni Arab figures are running for office, and the other major Sunni Arab political grouping, the Iraqi Islamic party, has not barred its members from voting. Equally encouraging is that party politics have not, so far, run along sharp ethnic or sectarian lines and most party platforms have been free of chauvinism. The United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, includes Sunni Arabs as well as Shia, and should do well. The list associated with prime minister Iyad Allawi is also multi-confessional, and, being better-funded and associated with the incumbent, also looks set to be successful.

The elections are likely to give Shia Iraqis the greatest number of seats in parliament, going some way to correcting the domination of the Shia by the Sunni minority since the creation of Iraq in the early twentieth century. Neighbouring Arab states, particularly Jordan and Gulf countries with significant Shia Arab populations, are deeply alarmed by this potential disruption to the status quo, and have suggested that Shia Arabs will be instruments of Iranian influence in Iraq. However, while several members of Sistani's UIA list spent time in Iran in exile, these accusations seem alarmist. Shia Arabs in Iraq are ambivalent about Iran, having been in the front line of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, there is little appetite in Iraq for an Islamic republic along Iranian lines. Iranian policy on Iraq as in all areas is divided, and it is difficult to see Shia Iraqis acting as Tehran's catspaw.

However, Shia Iraqis do want to secure the political gains they have made since the US invasion, and this will complicate the new national assembly's most difficult task, writing a permanent Iraqi constitution. The interim constitution, agreed several months before the US handed power over to Allawi in June 2004, papered over the most significant disagreements between Iraq's ethnic and confessional groups. Shia Iraqis want to ensure that they are never again dominated by a powerful minority, as they had been by Sunni Iraqis since the 1950s. All Shia Iraqis therefore advocate popular elections and important political posts for the Shia. The Kurds, arguably the other great beneficiaries of the US invasion, want to preserve minority rights, and want Kurdish areas to have an effective veto over matters of national policy. They favour a federal system in Iraq. Minority influence should also appeal to Sunni Arabs, but many still see Kurdish and Shia political power as a disruption to the natural order, and are so far reluctant to participate in discussion of the constitution. This makes some Sunni participation in next week's elections critical.

Alongside demographics and political weight, religious law and oil are the two other major issues the national assembly must tackle. The interim constitution naturally mentions Sharia - Islamic law derived from the Koran and other sources - as one of the sources of Iraqi law. However, imposing the Shia interpretation of Sharia, known as the Jaafari school, would alienate Sunni Iraqis as well as Christians and other sects. Moreover, some Iraqis - notably the Communists, who have a strong Shia following - would like Sharia's application to be limited to family law, while others are advocating something closer to a clerical regime.

Iraq's oil fields are in the northern and southern thirds of the country, areas that the Kurds and Shia Arabs respectively regard as their spheres of influence. The Kurds were awarded 17 per cent of Iraq's oil revenue under the United Nations oil-for-food program, and Kurdish leaders are arguing that they should receive 20 per cent of total national revenues under new arrangements. The Kurds would also like control over oilfields in Kirkuk. Both ideas are strongly resisted by Iraq's oil ministry, as well as by Allawi's government, which recognises that dividing oil revenues would weaken the central government in Baghdad. Oil is thus a critical issue for the authors of the constitution.

The fact remains that the Iraqi central government is weak, and it will be unable to assert its authority over the entire country for some time to come. The national armed forces cannot effectively end the insurgency, while the Allawi government is weakened by its association with US forces. Violence, particularly in Sunni areas, is likely to continue after the election, and it is likely that Iraq will be become a training ground for Islamists who will fight in future conflicts outside Iraq. Nevertheless, efforts by the insurgents to provoke a sectarian or ethnic conflict have so far failed, in spite of continuing attacks on Shia leaders and inflammatory comments from religious leaders. Iraq's greatest challenge over the next six months will be to write a constitution that preserves the country’s fragile sense of national unity.

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