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Analysis: Iraq's political chess game

The stakes are high for the US and all of Iraq in the waiting game for election results.

The Sunni community, an aggrieved minority since the fall of Saddam, stayed home in large numbers in the 2005 elections. In a way, this was their first national election and the participation was high. In the predominantly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin more than 70 percent turned out to vote. So far, the Shiite-dominated government has done little to integrate Sunnis into the new Iraq. In the run up to the vote, a Shiite-controlled official body banned more than 500 candidates, many of them Sunnis, on vague charges of links to the outlawed Baath Party. This stirred fears in the larger Sunni community that the real motive was to marginalize them politically. Sunnis are watching the returns with a wary eye. For the most part, they backed Allawi, the secular Shiite who built his coalition with Sunni partners and in the "open list system" Sunnis could vote for Sunni candidates in his coalition.

"The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and the Upheaval of the Middle East" by Deborah Amos. 

But what will Sunnis get out of this large turnout? Political reconciliation can only happen if Sunnis believe they have a fair share of power. How will they react if there is no change in status when the votes are counted and a prime minister is in place?

There is another group of Iraqis with a keen interest in the election outcome, the large population of exiles who wait uneasily across Iraq’s borders and across the globe. Despite an overall reduction in violence in Iraq, few of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country between 2004 and 2007 have returned. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs while approximately 15 percent are Iraqi Christians. Their departure represents a dramatic demographic shift in Iraq. In this election, they demonstrated a keen interest in the future direction of the country. More than 250,000 exiles turned out to vote in 16 countries. The highest numbers of Iraqi voters showed up to cast ballots in Syria, Sweden, the U. S., Jordan and Iran. These exiles will judge the election by what it reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines that contributed to the exodus and displacement of 20 percent of the prewar population. The outcome could determine whether they stay in exile, a destabilizing population in neighboring countries, or return home.

Pre-election violence in Mosul that targeted the remaining Christian community depressed the vote there and dismayed the exile community. A young Christian woman blogged her despair on voting day: “We are just tired from living in horror … I wonder if my relatives from abroad will come back? That all depends on what happens in Baghdad.”

Deborah Amos is an editor-at-large for GlobalPost. She is currently a Goldsmith Fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. She covers Iraq for NPR News and is the author of a newly published book, "The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile and the Upheaval of the Middle East."