WASHINGTON – President Bush had barely put away his tuxedo from the inaugural festivities when deadly bombings in Baghdad presented a stark reminder of the grim backdrop against which Iraq will hold a national election.
The vote this coming Sunday to pick a 275-member National Assembly is an important test for Bush's mission to spread democracy through the Middle East.
Even if the elections take place with a minimum of violence, however, military and diplomatic headaches are ahead for the Bush administration and for the fledgling Iraqi government.
The national assembly has to take office, elect a prime minister and form a government and field a police force able to maintain security. Then it must write a constitution that will facilitate more elections, either in late 2005 or in 2006.
The United States must think about when it can begin to bring home some of the 150,000 troops now in Iraq and, ultimately, withdraw from the country.
"Simply having a vote by itself is relatively meaningless. The question is whether the people who are elected can do the job," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst and Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search).
"Merely having people go to the polls can always be claimed to be a success. And I'm sure the administration will claim just that, while a good part of the Arab world will claim it's a failure," he said.
Bush did not mention Iraq in his inaugural speech Thursday, although he alluded to it, saying "Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon."
The administration and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi (search), have insisted that the elections will go ahead despite the threat of violence and the expectation that a large portion of the county's Sunni Arabs will not participate.
Low turnouts will increase the likelihood that declared winners will be challenged after the vote.
Administration officials have sought to lower expectations, both for the turnout and the outcome. They have emphasized the importance of other steps to be taken later to guide Iraq's transformation.
John Negroponte (search), the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, told FOX News Sunday that the election will be Iraq's first in several decades. "The important thing is the fact that the election will be taking place, and I suspect there will be very wide participation," he said.
"There will, after all, be a tripartite presidency formed, there will be a cabinet to be selected and a constitution to be drafted, followed by a referendum on that constitution and, finally, by elections for a definitive government in December."
Increasingly, U.S. officials have acknowledged miscalculations about Iraq. While Bush declared on May 1, 2003, that major combat had ended in Iraq, the U.S. death toll still climbs steadily.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bush's nominee to be secretary of state, said "there were some bad decisions" on Iraq, although she would not spell them out. Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most ardent advocates, before the war, of invading Iraq, said he overestimated the pace of Iraq's recovery and ability to govern itself.
Nearly 1,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion that began in March 2003.
The administration is coming under pressure, even from some Republicans, to detail an exit strategy.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, an architect of the U.S. war with Iraq in 1991, has urged the administration to consider a phased withdrawal of some of the troops to avoid being accused of having an "imperial design" in the region.
Administration officials have refused to set a deadline and have said a U.S. pullback will depend on how long Iraq's security force takes to be fully trained and effective.
The administration also faces the possibility - however remote - that Iraq's newly elected government will kick U.S. troops out sooner.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to lose "coalition of the willing" partners. Ukraine, the fourth-largest contributor of troops to the U.S.-led war effort with 1,650 soldiers, became the latest country to say its troops would leave.
Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the expected low turnout by Iraq's Sunni Arabs (search), who ruled Iraq for eight decades, probably would guarantee that few Sunnis would win election to the new parliament. That would heighten the anger among Sunnis and build sympathy for the insurgents.
"Maximizing Sunni involvement strikes me as a critical aspect to reducing their support for the insurgency," O'Hanlon said. He said he favors a short postponement in the election for behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade more Sunnis to participate. That seems unlikely.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former special assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, acknowledge that going ahead with the elections now is not ideal but said putting them off would "give a victory to the people who are trying to derail the process."