|Around 19 million eligible voters will choose from over 6,000 candidates [AFP]
As Iraqis go to the polls to cast ballots in the second parliamentary election since the US invasion in 2003, there is great trepidation among both foreign and domestic observers: Not only over the outcome, and whether it will enhance or decrease political stability and good governance in the country, but over the future of the democratic experiment in Iraq itself.
There are good reasons for such concerns.
Prominent among these is the ruling from the Commission for Accountability and Justice, charged with the "de-Baathification" of Iraqi politics and public life, handed down only weeks before the election, to ban close to 500 candidates from participating.
The Commission, not incidentally, is dominated by two politicians - Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faysal al-Lami - who are affiliated with the Iran-leaning Iraqi National Alliance, which combines the two main Shia Islamist parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Al-Sadr Trend.
Among the individuals banned are two of the most prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq: Saleh al-Mutlaq and Dhafir al-Ani.
This move harkens back to the sweeping purges of even relatively low-level Baathists mandated in 2003 by the Supreme National Debaathification Commission chaired by -who else? - Ahmed Chalabi, whose handiwork certainly hastened the advance of a Sunni-led insurgency against the US occupation and, later, against the nascent Iraqi government as well.
Now, the ruling of the Commission for Accountability and Justice, reinforced by a judicial review panel which has refused to overturn all but 26 of the exclusions despite the vague criteria upon which they were based, has threatened to undermine Sunni participation in the political process precisely at a time when sectarian violence was generally on the wane.
Linked to this development in the eyes of many, and to the more general exploitation of Shia fears of a resurgence of the Baath Party, is Iran's apparently growing influence over key Iraqi Shia parties and political figures, and with it, growing Persian influence over the Iraqi political process itself.
Indeed, Iranian support for violent Shia organisations such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq appears to continue apace.
More alarmingly, however, is a clear reluctance on the part of Shia politicians, including Nouri al-Maliki, the current Iraqi prime minister, to criticise Iranian actions, including those which involve clear violations of Iraqi sovereignty and blatant interference in Iraq's internal politics.
The Iranian strategy of enhancing its influence in Iraq by manipulating parties who seek its assistance against their rivals is proving largely effective.
Further, the Iraqi Shia Islamist parties represented in the Iraqi National Alliance have given further ominous indications of their potential fealty to Iran by promising to adhere to the rulings of the Marjaiya (hierarchy of Shia clerics) - without limiting the pledge, as they have in the past, to the Marjaiya of Najaf, or of Iraq.
These developments, in turn, have increased the fear and restiveness of the Sunni Arab community, potentially undermining their participation in the elections and stoking fears that many could abandon the political process and instead return to violent participation in the insurgency against a Shia-led government.
Undermining secular alliances
|Eighty-six political groups are looking to gain seats in Iraq's 325-member assembly [AFP]
While these trends are worrying, my personal view is that they are over-blown. Indeed, I believe that a closer examination of the facts should reinforce confidence in the viability of representative democracy in Iraq.
First, I think that one should more closely examine the impetus behind, and the effects of the actions by the Commission for Accountability and Justice.
Although the actions of the Commission and of those who upheld and reinforced their actions were clearly politically motivated, and depended upon exploitation of popular fears of a Baathist resurgence, it should be remembered that some 60 per cent of those banned in this process were Shia.
The effects of this action, moreover, and the apparent political motivation behind it, was not so much to delegitimise Sunni Arab participation in the elections, as it was to undermine the viability of cross-confessional, secular alliances such as the Al-Iraqiyah Coalition headed by Dr Iyad Allawi, which poses a strong challenge both to al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition and to the Iraqi National Alliance.
Thus, this action, pernicious though it might be, is an indication of the strong popular appeal of secular forces, at the expense of the Shia religiously-dominated parties.
In line with this trend, we can see that the majority Shias are, if anything, becoming less unified and more diverse in terms of their political affiliations, increasing the opportunities for parties affiliated with the minority communities, both Sunni Arab and Kurdish, to enhance their influence through participation in post-election coalitions.
And while many key Shia players are tempted, in this highly competitive and atomised political environment, to follow the negative example of Lebanese politicians in turning to foreign sources of support, they dare not do so too openly for fear of incurring the wrath of Iraqi voters, including a majority of the Shia, who are clearly nationalistic in their outlook and opposed to Iranian influence in their internal affairs.
Key Sunni political figures and groupings, moreover, despite some initial threats, have refused to repeat the mistake of their 2005 election boycott, realising that the best opportunity to defend their interests is through the political process.
All this puts me in mind of a conversation I had with a prominent Iraqi back in 2003, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
This individual suggested that Iraqis were simply not ready for democracy, and that a move in that direction could lead to internal chaos and exploitation by regional powers.
My reaction at the time was to say that given the many political divisions within Iraq, and with the annihilation of the centralised control formerly exerted by Saddam and the Baath Party, Iraq was "condemned" to democracy.
I felt strongly then, as I continue to believe now, that the many political forces released as a result of the US invasion cannot be put back in the bottle, and that the only way for these opposing tendencies to be reconciled, or for any of the many contending communities to realise their individual goals, is through a robust democratic process.
Indeed, there is no clearer manifestation than Iraq of Winston Churchill's axiom that democracy is the worst political system - except for all the rest.
The continuation of the Iraqi democratic experiment is likely to be messy and often unedifying. This election is sure to be no exception.
I believe, however, that the experiment will continue, and continue to be more viable - if for no other reason than that there is simply no effective alternative.
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. From October 2002 until December 2004, he was the CIA Iraq Mission Manager. He was also the director of the CIA's counterterrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.