BAQ'UBAH -- A historic test of Iraq's new democracy culminates on January 31, when millions of voters are expected to cast ballots in the first nationwide elections under the constitutional government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the first since sectarian battles brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Candidates are vying for 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of 18 governorates. The councils will select provincial governors, approve budgets, influence the appointment and firing of police chiefs, and be involved in reconstruction and community projects.
But the reshaping of local governance is just one side of the political equation that will be decided; the other is Iraq's newfound stability.
Diyala, an agricultural province north of Baghdad, is central to that constancy. To Diyala's east is the Iranian border, where U.S. officials say arms are brought across to extremist groups. To its west is the Tigris River and, beyond, Salah Al-Din province, part of the so-called Sunni Triangle. To its north are Kurdish areas.
International forces have long regarded Diyala as a transit point for Al-Qaeda terrorists going north to Mosul in Nineva province or south to the Iraqi capital. In 2006, amid nationwide sectarian battles, Al-Qaeda was so confident of its influence in the province -- especially rural areas -- that it declared Diyala the "Islamic State of Iraq." Although Al-Qaeda has been seriously disrupted and chased out of Diyala, U.S. intelligence sources say as many as 130 of the extremists still operate near the Iranian border and south of Baq'ubah. This Time, No Boycott
As much as 60 percent of Diyala province's 1.8 million residents are Sunni Arabs, the minority sect that was highly overrepresented under Saddam Hussein, but Shi'a hold the official reins of power. They dominate the provincial council, they dominate provincial government departments and agencies, and they are the overwhelming majority on police rolls.
The skewed situation is largely a result of the Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections to protest the U.S.-led occupation, resulting in the rise of their traditional rivals in Diyala.
Sunnis this reporter spoke to in Diyala over many months grudgingly and sheepishly conceded their mistake, and there is no Sunni boycott this time around.
Sunni candidates, either as independents or as members of scores of parties or coalition blocs, are on the stump and expectations are high. The big questions are: Will such a turnabout re-spark sectarian violence that Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups could exploit? And if there is violence, could it spread beyond provincial boundaries?
There are no easy answers. In the many tribal and sectarian reconciliation meetings that U.S. troops in Diyala province held last year between Sunnis and Shi'a, shouted accusations, resentments, and complaints from the two groups came fast, furious, and with vehemence. The meetings ended with handshakes and expressions of goodwill, but a bystander couldn't help thinking the concept of letting bygones be bygones was unrealistic.
Still, it's a new year, reconciliation efforts have continued, and a downturn in violence appears to have provided hope.
"We hope everybody understands that Iraq is for everybody," Iraqi police Major Amad Ahmad Muhammad, who is of mixed sectarian heritage, says of the impending vote and results. Local Focus
Twenty-nine provincial-council seats are being contested in Diyala. The number of council seats was reduced from the current number of more than 40 seats as a result of national legislation. A complicated system will allocate those seats in all 14 provincial contests through a proportional system based on votes received to grant minority groups some representation.
Elections posters showing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani go up in Baghdad.
To help dampen religious or sectarian fervor in balloting, the central government banned the use of religious symbols on campaign posters and literature.
Candidates reportedly have tended to stress practical issues in this election, including the improvement of basic services -- electricity and water -- and anticorruption efforts.
"The situation is different now," police Major Ahmad Muhammad says. "People recognize good from bad. If the government -- Sunni or Shi'ite -- gives them what they need, they will support the government.
"Many people believe this election will be good for them. They need someone to save them from the old names [current government leaders], to take responsibility and help everyone."
Forty-one percent of respondents in a recent government-funded public opinion poll of 4,750 people said they would vote for secular candidates, compared to 31 percent who said they would vote for those supported by religious parties. The poll, by the government-funded National Media Center, reported that more than eight in 10 people said they felt security had made it safe enough to venture out to polling stations to cast a ballot. Security Precautions
Security on January 31 is an Iraqi responsibility, in keeping with the new Status of Forces Agreement that puts Iraqi Security Forces in the lead in to combat terrorism and maintain law and order.
"We don't get near the polling stations," says First Lieutenant Todd Kluttz, of Bravo Company, 5th Infantry Regiment. "We're strictly [a quick-reaction force]. The Iraqis have worked it all out; the only thing we asked for is to follow the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Army when they take the ballots to the storage area to make sure nothing happens to them."
The government has banned all vehicle traffic on election day to guard against car bombs or other large-scale attacks. Women voters will be searched as they pass through security checkpoints around the polling centers by female security personnel checking for bombs hidden beneath their garments.
"We're not expecting any trouble, but we're ready for it," says Amir Atif Ali, who is in charge of a government facilities-protection-service unit at a school in Baq'ubah's Hayy Salaam neighborhood. "The people are ready for this election, and it is important that they feel safe."
In Baq'ubah and elsewhere, more than a dozen police officers will guard each polling station. Iraqi Army troops will be close by, manning checkpoints; U.S. forces will be more distant, waiting in their vehicles in case they are needed -- and requested -- by their Iraqi counterparts.
The voting will not officially be a referendum of sorts on the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but his face appears on posters for his Al-Da'wah party and Rule of Law coalition.
Four provinces -- those in the Kurdish autonomous region in the north -- are sitting out the January 31 vote, and are scheduled to hold their own provincial elections at a later date.