About the time a new American president is sworn into office in January, Iraq could be holding its first elections in more than three years – elections that could either cement stability gains there or reignite sectarian tensions.
Uncertainty about what those provincial elections will bring is one reason US officials have lately been so cautious about their assessments of Iraq's future, despite six months of improved security and other positive signs there.
"There are a lot of trepidations about these [provincial] elections because there's so much potential for conflict, especially for the unappeased Sunnis to look at the results and erupt with a 'we was robbed' response," says Wayne White, a former State Department Iraq expert.
The Sunnis, who controlled Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein, are already unhappy with the way they are treated by the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he adds, especially concerning what they see as their underrepresentation in the new Iraqi security forces.
For the two men contending to be America's next president, cautious assessments by top military officials who oversee US operations in Iraq do not mesh neatly into their stated plans.
Democrat Barack Obama's intent to remove most US troops within 16 months of taking office could be upended if Iraqi elections once again inflame ethnic tensions – especially if Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists are able to exploit them and regain a foothold.
And John McCain's assertion that he would bring US troops home "in victory" would be more difficult to justify if Iraq takes a turn for the worse.
US concerns about Iraq's political stability stem in large part, as they have in the past, from unresolved tensions along ethnosectarian divides – between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis, but also now between the Kurds and the Shiites.
Last week, both Gen. David Petraeus – the US commander in Iraq during the "surge" of US troops who is about to assume the top spot in the US Central Command – and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that they see recent progress in Iraq as "fragile" and "reversible."
And Gen. Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq who replaced General Petraeus, is speaking publicly of his concern that power struggles exacerbated by the upcoming elections could undo recent political gains.
Another worry is the failure of US and Iraqi officials to reach an agreement that would allow American forces to remain and operate in Iraq past the end of this year. On Wednesday, Mr. Maliki said his security cabinet would this week take up a final draft of the agreement, which has been held up for months – primarily on the issue of legal jurisdiction over US soldiers committing crimes in Iraq.
All these concerns factor into a recent Pentagon assessment of Iraq, which cited a list of unresolved political issues and security question marks. The next National Intelligence Estimate, which will be published sometime after the US elections, is expected to echo the cautious sentiment.
Another troubling development in Iraq – one that has received less attention than the sectarian schisms – is the growing divide between a large and increasingly successful military, and a lagging and increasingly disdained civilian government, says Mr. White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"The civilian side of government is terribly weak, dysfunctional, and corrupt, and against that is this burgeoning national army that has allowed for most of what Maliki has achieved," he says. "We could see a building of resentment within the Army against Maliki for taking the credit while failing to put the civilian side in order – and that could lead to some kind of action by the Army."
Iraq scholars, who point out that a similar widening governmental divide in the 1950s led to a coup against Iraq's monarchy, say that Iraq could end up with the kind of authoritarian military government more typical of Middle Eastern regimes if the civilian government is not able to overcome its divisions.
One problem is that sectarian relations will face a number of possibilities to unravel before the January elections even take place. On the list of Iraq's "dark clouds" that Petraeus offers on a PowerPoint presentation: Nov. 1. That is supposed to be the first "payday" for the 54,000 mostly Sunni "Sons of Iraq" whom the Maliki government agreed to integrate into the Iraqi security forces.
Moreover, another election is causing a certain turmoil in Iraq: the one taking place in the US on Nov. 4. One reason the US and Iraq have been unable to conclude the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to govern the presence of 140,000 foreign troops in Iraq is that some Iraqi politicians may be hedging bets on the next US administration.
"Unfortunately, the SOFA negotiations have dragged into our elections season," Mr. Peters says, "so at this point, the delay in reaching an agreement is more a reflection of interest in the outcome of our elections and how that might rework the equation, than an indication of Iraq itself."