Image: Salah Erkhayis
Nabil Al-jurani  /  AP
Salah Erkhayis, a candidate for provincial council, left, helps puts up his own campaign posters in Zubayr, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday. 
By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News

BAGHDAD — Iraq is holding provincial elections on Saturday. The elections are important and will set the political landscape of Iraq for the next several years. Richard Engel, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent, explains why they matter.

What are provincial council elections?
Iraq is broken up into 18 provinces (governorates). The provincial councils run the governorates.  They are powerful. The provincial councils handle all the distribution of public services (water, sewers, electricity, etc.) The councils also regulate local contracting and the distribution of state lands. The councils also nominate police chiefs. Essentially, the provincial councils are where the rubber meets the road. If you control which streets get power and who receives government land, you have a lot of influence. 

Iraqis will only be holding elections in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Elections in Kurdish provinces and the disputed Kirkuk province will be held later.

What does this mean for President Obama?
These elections are the Obama administration’s first real test of Iraq’s stability. If they go smoothly, it is a good sign that Obama can move forward on his promise to end the war and pull out troops in 16 months.

What does it mean for U.S. troops?
If Iraqi forces can handle the elections without bloodshed, there’s more hope they can secure the country on their own and that Iraq won’t descend into civil war when U.S. troops leave.

How does the political landscape currently stand? 
Most of Iraq’s provincial councils today are dominated by the Shiite “Islamic Supreme Council” and its affiliated Badr Brigade. The Supreme Council is heavily influenced by Iran and the Badr Brigade, its paramilitary wing, was trained directly by Iran. The Supreme Council — run by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim — is the main Shiite rival of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is a member of a different Shiite group, the Dawa Party.

The Supreme Council has been unpopular among many Shiites for mixing too much religion with politics. And the Supreme Council is hated by many Sunnis, who see it an Iranian militia.

What is expected to happen on Election Day?
1) The Supreme Council is expected to lose influence. The group will still do well in rural areas in southern Iraq, but may lose its grip on the provincial councils, its powerbase.

2) Sunnis are expected to come out in force. Sunnis want to bring down the Supreme Council and increase Sunni representation.

3) Prime Minister Maliki will likely get stronger. He has grown more popular because security has improved dramatically across Iraq over the past year. Maliki is credited here for the success of the U.S. troop ‘surge’ and for Iraqi military offensives in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul.

4) Women are back. Women, who enjoyed a high social status and levels of education under Saddam, saw terrible setbacks as Iraq fell into civil war. As a result of the sectarian violence from 2005-2007, women retreated to their homes and fell from public view. In these elections, thousands of female candidates are running. Posters of female politicians have been put up across Baghdad.

5) The Mahdi Army will likely lose power. The Shiite militia, the Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, has taken a beating recently. It has been hammered by the U.S. Army. Many Iraqis seem happy it has been pushed into a box. The group is not expected to do well in the elections.

6) Some former insurgents are expected to gain power. Former Sunni insurgents who joined U.S. and Iraqi troops to increase security and reduce violence with the so-called “Awakening” movement have been waiting for political power. They are expected to get some.

7) Secularists power is expected to grow. Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and ex-CIA operative, is trying to make a comeback. He is one of a number of secular nationalists trying to gain influence.

What’s the end result likely to be?
No one group will win a majority. Most of the provincial councils will be divided among several groups. 

The elections are nonetheless significant and raise questions about the future of the state: Can it survive a U.S. troop withdrawal? Will Iraq be a Shiite state dominated by Iran? Or is it moving to secular nationalism? Can Maliki emerge as a true nationalist leader? 

We’ll begin to see some indications of where the elections will go this week. Pre-voting (for police and others who will be working on Election Day) started Wednesday. Nationwide voting will be on Saturday.   

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