|There has been protests in Baghdad over the expulsion of candidates [EPA]
Iraq's second parliamentary elections since the 2003 US-led invasion is scheduled for March 7. The Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission has approved 6,172 candidates to compete for 325 seats.
However, the decision to bar 511 candidates from contesting the elections is threatening the credibility of the vote, that observers say is crucial for reconciling Iraq's sectarian and ethnic factions.
Al Jazeera takes a look at how the controversy developed and its possible implications.
Who expelled the candidates?
They were expelled by the Supreme National Commission for de-Baathification under the Accountability and Justice Law approved by the parliament.
Why were they expelled?
They were expelled for alleged links to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's ousted leader.
Was the expulsion irrevocable?
No. The banned candidates had the right to appeal to Iraq's Supreme Court and 177 of them lodged appeals against the decision to ban them.
The court upheld the Commission's decision regarding 149 candidates, while the appeals of 28 candidates were accepted and subsequently the ban on them was revoked.
Why did only 177 candidates out of 511 appeal?
The rest were replaced by their respective lists and parties for several reasons.
Some of them regarded the de-Baathification Committee as an illegal entity and decided against appealing so as not to give it legitimacy. Some of them chose to be replaced because they believed the objective is to get their parties and coalitions to the parliament regardless of who the people representing them are.
To which groups do the expelled candidates belong?
They are mainly from the Iraqiya Coalition List headed by Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister. The candidates themselves are a mixture of Sunni, Shia and Kurds, claiming to be secular politicians.
Who are the most prominent candidates banned from participation?
Dhafir al-Ani, the head of the Future National Gathering, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, co-founder of the Iraqiya List, are the most prominent.
What was the reaction of the expelled candidates to the Supreme Court decision?
They accused the court of being under the influence of the ruling party. They have also accused the government of undermining Iraq's young democracy by expelling those who do not agree with the government's ideology and style of rule.
What was the reaction of the ruling party?
They hailed the decision and denied influencing the judges, insisting the bans imposed were legal.
What has been the response of the affected parties?
The Iraqiya List has suspended its election campaign for three days, pending negotiations. They want the bans revoked.
What could happen next?
The Iraqiya List has asked the presidential council to rescind the ban in order to "create a proper democratic atmosphere ahead of the elections". The group prepared an appeal to the Federal Court to remove the ban.
However, those efforts had failed when it came to Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Iraqi politican banned from contesting in the elections, who later announced his withdrawl from the March 7 vote.
Al- Mutlaqis also the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, the second largest Sunni party.
Al-Mutlaq's party was part of Iraqiya, a cross-sectarian coalition headed by the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia with ambitions to become prime minister again.
The Iraqiya list has said it will still participate in the election despite the boycott by one of its members.
Now, many Iraqis feel that tension among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups could rise and take away the security gains that Iraq won in the past two years.
Does that mean a possible transition of power will not be peaceful?
While the choices are stark, Iraq's 18.9 million registered voters will decide whether the country throws its support behind a religious, Shia-led government.
Such a move would mean closer ties with neighboring Iran that would likely develop under the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, along with the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Iraq could also go with the Iraqiya coalition led by Allawi, the former prime minister who is a secular Shia and carries appeal within Iraqi society.
What could happen to Maliki's State of Law coalition?
It probably lies somewhere in the middle. A compromise choice in 2006, al-Maliki has survived and even thrived, trying to portray himself as nationalist candidate who can cross sectarian lines and secure the country.
But his security credentials have been tarnished by a series of bombings targeting government and other buildings in Baghdad. In response, he has raised sectarian tensions by repeatedly blaming members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party for the attacks, suggesting they were linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Could the elections be a turning point for Iraqi Kurds living in the country?
The debate over how to apportion votes in Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, was so contentious that it forced the delay of the election from January to March.
Kurds, who control three provinces in a self-rule region in northern Iraq, were kicked out of Kirkuk by Saddam under a plan to make the city theirs. They also want control over a large swath of territory stretching from Syria to Iran called the disputed territories.
The election could be a major step for the ethnic minority which has been a staunch US ally.
But after years of violence, the hopes and dreams for this election with many Iraqis are more focused on having a safer country to live in.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies