The Obama administration is confident that Iraq will be able to form a new government within a matter of months, following Sunday's parliamentary elections.
Senior Administration Officials say that Iraq's current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will act as a caretaker until the new government is in power. That process is expected to take approximately five months, putting the transition date sometime in August, the deadline for whittling down the presence of U.S. combat forces in the region. "We see nothing now that effects the plan," said a senior official.
With the troop drawdown looming, and the relatively short amount of time to form a new government, officials point skeptics to a recent emergence of politics as a tool of engagement in Iraq. "The notion that we are somehow disengaging is wrong," says one official, adding that the U.S. has seen more and more Iraqis turn to the political process rather than violence for resolving differences. This posture has encouraged the White House, which remains confident that this is the last election the U.S. government will oversee. "We've seen nothing that would divert us from the track we're on."
Still, no one denies that Sunday's election will be challenging. "There's the old saw about a second election being the most important," said one official. "Never is that more true." Sunday will mark only the second full parliamentary election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The 2005 election was riddled with sectarian violence.
Administration officials characterize this year's race as being very hotly contested, making the process even more difficult than it already is. On Thursday violence plagued an early round of test voting, and the attacks are expected to continue. Still, the top U.S. general in Iraq, Ray Odierno, is said to have confidence in the security measures currently in place, including a curfew and bans on vehicular traffic on election day. One administration official touted today as a success, despite the string of deadly blasts. "Today was the day to be concerned about," the official said. "They seem to have passed the test."
The U.S. will have 26 teams of four individuals at polling places in every province, with approximately 90,000 observers total. Officials point to several major procedures that are designed to curb fraud and abuse at the polls. Those include voting lists at polling places, no same day voting, finger printing, special paper ballots, and transparent ballot boxes. All votes will be counted in the presence of election observers.
Preliminary results are expected by March 10th or 11th, based on reporting from 30 percent of polling places. Certified results from the Iraqi Supreme Court are expected within a month's time. The results will be announced in newspapers and individual parties will have three days to file an appeal.
Once votes are counted and certified, the process is still a long one. Administration officials are urging the Iraqis to move swiftly, but caution that efforts to secure political advantage could lead to violence during the rather long transition period. There is no indication, according to officials, that neighboring Iran will attempt to meddle in the process, though the U.S. acknowledges that there's no question Iraq's neighbors have influence in the region. The official added, however, that the U.S. is encouraged by a strong emergence of nationalism among the Iraqis
When asked whether the U.S. will be available to facilitate the next parliamentary election, an administration official responded, "If they ask for help or advice, sure."
"The combat mission ends," said the official but a "robust remaining force" will be in place after August.
"We will not tell them how to conduct their affairs. That's up to them." The administration official says the stakes are so high for the Iraqi people, that they don't need a push from the U.S. "The formation of the government is for them. It's not for us."