The stated purpose of the elections is to vote for a transitional assembly - parliament - that will possess law-making powers, draft an Iraqi constitution and schedule general elections for the offices of prime minister, president and ruling political party at the end of the year.

A brief guide to the major issues:

The elections

The people of Iraq will be voting for a Transitional National Assembly comprised of 275 members. The entire country will be considered a single constituency.

Political parties have submitted lists of candidates with the proviso that every third candidate in the list will be female.

All candidates must be over the age of 30 to run for a parliamentary seat.

Seats will be allocated by a system of exact proportional representation, meaning that each party or grouping will get the same proportion of seats in the assembly as it gets for its list in the popular vote.

An election for the autonomous Kurdish parliament in the north will take place on the same day as the nationwide poll, as will elections to local assemblies for each Iraqi province.

Kurds make up an estimated 15% of the Iraq population and the two main Kurdish parties, which already dominate politics in the north, have announced a joint list in the nationwide election.

Former senior Baathists or current members of the armed forces, and parties or groups with militias - such as Muqtada al-Sadr and his al-Mahdi Army - have been formally banned from running in the election.

The Transitional National Assembly

The assembly will be able to choose Iraq's government and will have the power to enact laws. Its first duty will be to elect a president and two deputies, who in turn will choose a prime minister, also from the assembly.

Interim PM Allawi is fighting for
assembly seats for his party INA

The prime minister will be the main figure of authority, exercising power over the armed forces, for example. Iyad Allawi is the current interim prime minister. He was not elected but appointed by the former US administrator, Paul Bremer.

The other primary role of the assembly is to draw up a draft constitution by 15 August 2005 and submit this to a referendum by 15 October 2005.

A constitutional government

When the constitution is approved, elections will be held by 15 December 2005 and a fully constitutional government will assume power by 31 December 2005.

If the constitution is rejected there will be new assembly elections by 15 December 2005, with a third year then allocated for the entire process.

There is also provision for a delay of six months if insufficient progress is made on the constitution by 1 August 2005.

The candidates

About 100 parties have registered for the election. They will each produce a list of candidates.

Iraqis will not be voting for individual politicians themselves but candidates representing a party or coalition for the assembly.

Those placed at the top of the lists are the people deemed to have the strongest chance of being elected. At the last count there were approximately 7000 candidates registered.

A prominent Shia list candidate is
Finance Minister Abd al-Mahdi

The Electoral Commision recently said as many as 73 single-party lists were registered for the ballot, plus nine multi-party coalitions and 25 individuals running for a seat on their own.

Of these, Allawi's Iraqi National Accord is expected to do well enough to garner seats that will safely keep him as interim prime minister, as will - in all likelihood - interim President Ghazi Al-Yawir's own list of candidates for his Iraq Party.

But it is the Unified Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - a coalition of predominantly Shia parties, mostly religious, a few secular, including Ahmad Chalabi's Iraq National Congress (seen as the group that influenced Washingon's decision to invade Iraq) - which is being seen as the likely winner.

Political power

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Shia Muslims form more than 50% of the population and their parties are likely to be dominant in the elections.

The UIA apparently has the backing of Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani. But it also includes some minority Sunni and Yazidi parties.

The Kurds in the north have had virtual autonomy for some years now, so their parties are well established.

Massud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - the two main Kurdish parties - have formed the Kurdistan Alliance to compete for seats in a regional assembly.

They have urged Kurds to vote in large numbers to preserve their interests under the new system - namely, the preservation of their autonomy in northern Iraq since 1991.

The main political problem lies with who is representing the Sunni Arabs. 

Sunni Muslim clerics have called
for an election boycott

Iraq's main Sunni Arab Muslim grouping, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has already declared that it is not participating in the elections due to US military actions taking place in largely Sunni Arab areas.

With instability increasing in Sunni provinces, many cities and towns have not set up registration procedures for voting.

It has been considered safer for people to go to still-functioning and popular food rationing points in Iraq -  a legacy of UN economic sanctions and rationing - than to establish registration offices anew.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) has called for all Sunnis to boycott the elections, and said it would only consider renouncing its call if the United States announced a timetable to withdraw its forces.

Foreign forces

According to UN Security Council Resolution 1546, the mandate of foreign forces in Iraq will cease when the new fully constitutional government takes office. The troops may then be asked to stay by the new authorities.

There will also be a review in June 2005 over the presence of the large US-led foreign forces, who number in excess of 150,000 at present.