updated 1/24/2009 4:53:53 PM ET 2009-01-24T21:53:53

Iraqis vote Jan. 31 in the first nationwide election in three years, choosing provincial leaders in what amounts to a test of Iraq's stability as the U.S. plans to remove its troops.

In contrast to Iraq's three previous ballots since the U.S.-led invasion, which were held in the shadow of fierce fighting, this one is strikingly open.

In Baghdad and elsewhere, streets are festooned with colorful election banners, and candidates — many of them first-timers — have taken advantage of better security to hold public meetings where voters pose questions on such nuts-and-bolts issues as housing shortages and rising prices.

Although the races are local, the stakes are enormous — both for Iraq and the United States.

A credible election without significant violence would show that the security improvements of the past 18 months are taking hold. The outcome will also show which parties stand the best chance of success in parliamentary elections expected by the end of the year.

However, a deeply flawed election, marred by violence and allegations of widespread fraud, would cast doubt over Iraq's future and could influence President Barack Obama's decision on how fast to remove the 142,000 American troops.

Strong voter turnout expected
Obama pledged during the presidential campaign to end America's role in the unpopular war and has ordered his national security team to prepare plans for a responsible withdrawal. U.S. officials warn that a hasty pullout could threaten Iraq's fragile security.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the Pentagon is closely watching the elections because their outcome "will, I think, be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned extremists may try to disrupt Saturday's vote and are planning heightened security, including banning vehicles on election day and closing airports and land borders. But officials expect a strong turnout — possibly more than 70 percent of the 15 million eligible voters.

Election officials expect final results within a few days.

More than 14,400 candidates, about 3,900 of them women, are competing for 444 seats on ruling councils in 14 of the country's 18 provinces. So it could take weeks of dealmaking to determine which parties have gained control of key areas such as Baghdad, the oil-rich Shiite-dominated south and former insurgent strongholds of western Anbar province.

The vote is also effectively a referendum on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally as well as the entire Iraqi political establishment that has ruled since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite from a small political party, was widely seen as a weak and transitory leader when he took office in 2006 after Shiite and Kurdish parties withdrew their support for his predecessor.

That began to change last year after government forces wrested control of Basra and parts of Baghdad from Shiite militias that had ruled the streets for years.

Al-Maliki's government negotiated a new security agreement with the U.S. last year, setting a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal — something that former President George W. Bush had long resisted.

All that has significantly boosted al-Maliki's prestige among Iraqis anxious to end their country's turmoil.

Al-Maliki isn't running, but his somber, stubbly-bearded face features on campaign posters throughout Iraq, and he has campaigned extensively, especially in the south where his followers are locked in a bitter fight with the country's biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

A strong showing by al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law would bolster him against political rivals, including Kurdish and Shiite parties that are nominally part of his ruling alliance but oppose him on key power-sharing issues.

Desire for self-ruled region
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is part of his government, would like to take the premiership away from al-Maliki after this year's parliamentary elections.

The council, which maintains ties to both Iran and the U.S., also wants to build a self-ruled region in the Shiite south modeled on the autonomous Kurdish administration in the north.

Critics maintain a southern self-ruled region would fall under Iranian influence and could lead to the breakup of Iraq. Al-Maliki argues that the central government needs more power to defend and develop the country.

Sunni and Shiite religious parties that have run the country for years are expected to face a stiff challenge from secular-minded candidates who claim the incumbents governed poorly and fomented religious divisions.

Most commentators, however, believe the religious parties have the money and organization to maintain their hold on power, even if their grip is loosened.

Elections will take place later in the three Kurdish-ruled provinces. In a fourth, the one surrounding oil-rich Kirkuk, their vote was postponed indefinitely because ethnic groups there could not agree on a power-sharing formula.

Iraqis last elected leaders in January 2005, when the country was wracked by insurgency and Shiite-Sunni conflict nearly plunged the country into full-scale civil war.

Sunnis boycotted that vote, handing Shiites and Kurds a disproportionate share of power, even in provinces with big Sunni communities.

In the province that includes Mosul, where Sunnis are 60 percent of the population, minority Kurds won 31 of 41 council seats in the January 2005 balloting.

Sunni insurgents are still active there, and U.S. military commanders believe they can be neutralized if the election is credible and gives Sunnis a fairer share of power.

"They aren't going to be perfect elections," outgoing U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said recently. "We all know that. But it is important that they be credible elections."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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