Washington Awaits Crucial Elections in Iraq

As Iraq prepares to hold the most significant parliamentary elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States says they won't play favorites -- even though the outcome could directly impact their relations with the country.

"The naming of a cabinet and the selection of other government officials are decisions for Iraqis and the U.S. is not backing specific candidates," a statement from the State Department said.

The potential transfer of power comes at a time when the U.S. aims to withdrawal forces, leaving Iraq vulnerable to outside influences and a resurgence of sectarian violence. It's a test for Iraq's young democracy and will dictate future stability in the region.

"Washington doesn't have a horse in this race," one department official told Fox News.

Another told Fox News, "if we do back a candidate he is sure to lose."

But behind closed doors, Washington always has an opinion. Here's what they are looking at:

Right now there are five front-running parties battling for a majority in the Iraqi Parliament. Unlike the United States, Iraq's president plays a more ceremonial role and the prime minister, who is elected by the Parliament, holds the real power.

The Iraqi National Alliance represents the main Shiite opposition to Iraq's current Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki's, and includes followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who has a powerful militia and close ties to Iran. Al-Sadr's influence makes his party less favorable to the west.

Maliki was a virtual unknown before 2005, but has done well in elections since then and could be, along with his newly formed State of Law Coalition, a top choice among U.S. officials.

His party leads in the polls right now, but there is already talk that he wont get the post election support he needs to be voted as Prime Minister.

Considered to be a moderate, Maliki recently upset the country's Sunni minority after he decided to ban hundreds of parliamentary candidates for, as he put it, "blatantly propagating" ideas from Saddam Hussein's now outlawed Ba'ath Party.

Maliki later distanced himself from from two Shiite politicians Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, who are both running in the election and were exposed for spearheading the investigation into these Ba'athist connections. Top General in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, said recently that Chalabi and al-Lami were working closely with the Iranians at the time.

The Iraqi Accord, a majority Sunni group and the Kurdistan Alliance are both significant players, but neither are expected to be a favorite of the United States. The Kurds, who come from a strong contingent in the north, are considered in many ways outsiders in their own country, and for that reason could represent a swing vote. The Iraqi Accord is likely to get most of its support from the Anbar province, but represents a religious minority already weakened by members who've left for competing parties.

Ayad Allawi and his secular Iraqiya party, composed of Sunni and Shiite factions, presents another reasonable choice for U.S. interests. Allawi is a former Prime Minister who some describe as a "Westernized Iraqi."

The goal, according to State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley, is to get an "inclusive government that represents the interest of all Iraqi people."

It's tall order considering there are over 6,000 candidates running for 325 seats.

William Grant, the Department of State's special advisor for Iraq, told reporters Thursday it's "unlikely any one party will win the required majority."

Instead, Grant said, we'll see a negotiation process that could last as long as six months to form a coalition government. But before that process can happen, Iraq needs to pass the security test Sunday's election will bring. And they'll have to do it without much help from the U.S. Military.

In June of 2009 the U.S. Military removed all its forces from Iraqi cities, and now Iraqi Secuirty Forces are in the lead.

Already violence has broken out in this week's early election process, where disabled voters and others who wont be able to vote on Sunday have the chance to cast early ballots. Seventeen people were killed Thursday in three separate blasts, all of which targeted polling stations.

The good news, according to the State Department Iraq Director, George Sibley, is that so far Iraq has seen less violence than in the days leading to previous elections, and that today's attacks don't represent "broad sectarian violence." S

Still, Sibley said, "this election is going to be avidly contested."

A failure to control post election violence could be catastrophic for President Barak Obama's agreement with Iraq to have all combat troops out by August of 2010 and to have no more that 50,000 "advise and assist" troops remaining.

Last week Gen. Odierno told reporters in the Pentagon that the drawdown is on track, but if violence takes a turn for the worse he has plans to keep troops there longer.

"We think so far it will probably go fairly smoothly, but we'll wait to see", Odierno said of the post election negotiations. "I have contingency plans, and I've briefed the chain of command this week that we could execute if we run into problems."

Odierno would not say how many troops might have to remain, but its clear the number would interfere with Obama's pledge to be at 50,000 by the end of August. Right now there are roughly 96,000 U.S. service members in Iraq.