The New York TimesUpdated: Feb. 22, 2010

As the seventh anniversary of the war in Iraq approaches, the country is preparing to hold national elections that will go a long way to determining the sort of democracy the American invasion in 2003 has wrought.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, once an obscure lawmaker who has gained popularity and power over four years in office, is seeking re-election with his chances of success far from certain. That, in a region with sclerotic authoritarian systems, is itself a measure of Iraq’s nascent democracy: weeks before the election, it is not clear who will win. As one western diplomat put it, the traditional exit from power in the Middle East has involved “the coup or the coffin.”

The election, scheduled for March 7, has created other kinds of uncertainty, though, about the effect on plans for withdrawing American troops. The vote itself was delayed for months. A bitter political fight over the election rules prompted a veto by one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, who said Sunni Arabs inside and outside the country faced disadvantages. Then in January a parliamentary commission with disputed legal standing disqualified more than 500 candidates on the grounds they were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party or remained sympathetic to it.


The disqualifications—on grounds that have even now not been made public— reignited sectarian tensions that are never far from the surface, and the turmoil raised questions about the strength of Iraq’s democratic institutions. The murky process was orchestrated by two candidates in the election, including Ahmad Chalabi, a former exile who was warmly embraced by American officials who lobbied to overthrow Mr. Hussein’s regime. That glaring conflict of interest provoked outrage but did not derail the process.

A special appeals court initially reversed the disqualifications, then after Mr. Maliki and other political leaders met with the head of the country’s Supreme Judicial Council, the court reversed itself. In the end, only 26 candidates were returned to the ballot. Many accused Mr. Maliki’s party and another largely Shiite electoral coalition of using the process to target their main challengers in the elections, largely secular coalitions led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi and the serving interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani.

The pre-election turmoil unfolded against a backdrop of violence and intimidation, and a steady withdrawal of American troops. At least one candidate has been assassinated, another kidnapped; several party headquarters were bombed. On February 12, the Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent group that now includes the remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, vowed to disrupt the elections. While the level of violence has plunged from the shocking carnage of 2006 and 2007, suicide bombers continue to attack, seemingly at will, plunging Baghdad into chaos on a regular basis and undercutting Mr. Maliki’s claims to have restored security. Political disputes between Arabs and Kurds in the north continue to fester, prompting the Americans to intervene. Mr. Maliki’s use of the military and security forces to settle political disputes have also raised alarms, and put the Americans in the awkward middle.

The aftermath of the elections could be even more tumultuous, as the winners try to forge a majority coalition out of the Council of Representatives' 325 seats. Equally important will be the reaction of those who fall short. “Is everybody reconciled to losing elections in this country?” the western diplomat said. “No. I don’t think they are, especially if they feel their loss is engineered by others.”

A violent response could complicate the withdrawal of American troops, in keeping with President Obama’s pledge to end American military involvement in a war he long opposed. This month, the number of troops dipped below 100,000 for the first time since the beginning of the war, and officials say the drawdown remains on track to meet the president’s goal of having fewer than 50,000 by August, performing advisory roles, not combat operations.


Almost immediately after ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — some argue, even before — President George W. Bush began to press the case for an American-led invasion of Iraq. He cited the possibility that Saddam Hussein still sought nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in defiance of United Nations restrictions and sanctions. Mr. Bush and other senior American officials also sought to link Iraq to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Both claims have since been largely discredited, though some officials and analysts continue to argue otherwise, saying that Mr. Hussein's Iraq posed a real and imminent threat to the region and to the United States.

In his State of the Union address in 2002 , Mr. Bush linked Iraq with Iran and North Korea as an " axis of evil. '' In his 2003 address , Mr. Bush made it clear the United States would use force to disarm Mr. Hussein, despite the continuing work of United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, and despite growing international protests, even from some allies. A week later Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the administration's case before the United Nations Security Council with photographs, intercepted messages and other props, including a vial that, he said, could hold enough anthrax to shut down the United States Senate.

The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003—the early hours of March 20 in Iraq—when Mr. Bush ordered missiles fired at a bunker in Baghdad where he believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding. Within weeks, with a "coalition of the willing" and disputed legal authority , the United States quickly toppled Mr. Hussein's government, despite fierce fighting by some paramilitary groups. The Iraqi leader himself reportedly narrowly avoided being killed in the war's first air strikes. The Army's Third Infantry Division entered Baghdad on April 5, seizing what was once called Saddam Hussein International Airport. On April 9, a statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square was pulled down with the help of the Marines. That effectively sealed the capture of Baghdad, but began a new war.


The fall of Iraq's brutal, powerful dictator unleashed a wave of celebration, then chaos, looting, violence and ultimately insurgency. Rather than quickly return power to the Iraqis, including political and religious leaders returning from exile, the United States created an occupation authority that took steps widely blamed for alienating many Iraqis and igniting Sunni-led resistance. They included disbanding the Iraqi Army and purging members of the former ruling Baath Party from government and public life, both with consequences felt to this day. On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush appeared on an American aircraft carrier that carried a banner declaring " Mission Accomplished ," a theatrical touch that even the president years later acknowledged sent the wrong message.

In the security and political vacuum that followed the invasion, violence erupted against the American-led occupation forces and against the United Nations headquarters, which was bombed in August 2003, killing the body's special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003—the former leader was found unshaven and disheveled in a spider hole north of Baghdad—did nothing to halt the bloodshed. Nor did the formal transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June 200, which took place a few months after the publication of photographs showing the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib had further fueled anger and anti-American sentiment.

In January 2005, the Americans orchestrated Iraq's first multi-party elections in five decades, a moment symbolized by Iraqis waving fingers marked in purple ink after they voted. The elections for a Transitional National Assembly reversed the historic political domination of the Sunnis, who had largely boycotted the vote. A Shiite coalition supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric, won a plurality, and put Shiites in power, along with the Kurds. Saddam Hussein stood trial, remaining defiant and unrepentant as he faced charges of massacring Shiites in Dujail in 1982.

A new constitution followed by the end of the year, and new elections in January 2006 cemented the new balance of power, but also exposed simmering sectarian tensions, as many Sunnis boycotted. In February 2006, the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the most revered Shiite shrines, set off a convulsion of violence against both Sunnis and Shiites that amounted to a civil war. In Baghdad, it soon was not unusual for 30 bodies or more to be found on the streets every day, as Shiite death squads operated without hindrance and Sunnis retaliated. That steady toll was punctuated by spikes from bomb blasts, usually aimed at Shiites. Even more families fled, as neighborhoods and entire cities were ethnically cleansed. Ultimately, more than 2 million people were displaced in Iraq, and many of them are still abroad to this day, unable or too afraid to return.

Arab and Kurdish tensions also ran high. In Mosul, a disputed city in the north, Sunni militants attacked Kurdish and Christian enclaves. The fate of Kirkuk, populated by Arabs, Kurds and smaller minority groups, remains disputed territory, punctured routinely by killings and bombings. After a political impasse that reflected the chaos in the country, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a little-known Shiite politician previously known as Jawad al-Maliki, became Iraq's first permanent prime minister in April 2006.


The messy aftermath of a swift military victory made the war in Iraq increasingly unpopular at home, but not enough to derail Mr. Bush's re-election in November 2004. Almost immediately afterwards, though, his approval rating dropped as the war dragged on. It never recovered. By 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress. Their victory rested in large part on the growing sentiment against the war, which rose with the toll of American deaths, which reached 3,000 by the end of the year, and its ever spiraling costs. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death just before the Congressional elections, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned the day after the vote, widely blamed for having mismanaged the war.

In the face of rising unpopularity and against the advice of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group of prominent Americans, Mr. Bush ordered a large increase in American forces, then totaling roughly 130,000 troops. He decided to do so after meeting with his advisers over the New Year's holiday weekend, even as Mr. Hussein was hanged in a gruesome execution surreptitiously filmed with a cell phone.

The "surge," as the increase became known, eventually raised the number of troops to more than 170,000. It coincided with a new counterinsurgency strategy that had been introduced by a new American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the flowering of a once-unlikely alliance with Sunnis in Anbar province and elsewhere. Moktada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric, whose followers in the Mahdi Army militia had been responsible for some of the worst brutality in Baghdad, declared a cease-fire in September. These factors came together in the fall of 2007 to produce a sharp decline in violence.

Political progress and ethnic reconciliation were halting, though, fueling calls by Democrats to begin a withdrawal of American forces, though they lacked sufficient votes in Congress to force one. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, an early opponent of the war, rose to prominence in the Democratic race for the nomination in large part by capitalizing on the war's unpopularity. But by the time Mr. Obama defeated Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination in 2008 and then the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, Iraq hardly loomed as an issue as it once had, both because of the drop in violence there and because of the rising economic turmoil in the United States and later the world.


At the end of 2007, Mr. Bush and General Petraeus had succeeded in maintaining the level of American forces in Iraq above what it was before the "surge" began. Mr. Maliki's government, increasingly confident of its growing military might, expanded operations against insurgents and other militants that had once been the exclusive fight of the Americans. The militias loyal to Mr. Sadr, who had gone into exile, were routed in a government-led offensive in southern Iraq, though significant assistance from American forces and firepower was needed for the Iraqis to succeed. By May, the offensive extended to Sadr City in Baghdad, a densely populated neighborhood that had been largely outside of the government's control.

In December 2008, Mr. Bush made a valedictory visit to Iraq, his fourth trip to the country he liberated from Saddam Hussein's rule and then plunged into bloodshed. The visit, intended to celebrate the new security agreements and the newly confident Iraqi sovereignty implicit in them, was instead overshadowed by an Iraqi journalist during Mr. Bush's press conference with Mr. Maliki. Muntader al-Zaidi, a television correspondent, hurled first one shoe, then a second, at Mr. Bush, who ducked and narrowly averted being struck. Hurling a shoe is insult enough, but Mr. Zaidi also shouted: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog." The correspondent, who was beaten, arrested and, his relatives and lawyer said, later tortured, became a folk hero of sorts in the Arab world, though not universally. He was initially sentenced to three years in jail, but Iraq's highest court reduced the sentence to one year. He was released in September 2009 and fled the country after claiming he had been tortured in jail.

American and Iraqi officials spent most of 2008 negotiating a new security agreement to replace the United Nations mandate authorizing the presence of foreign troops. Negotiations proceeded haltingly for months, but Mr. Bush, who for years railed against those calling for timetables for withdrawal, agreed in July 2008 to a "general time horizon." That ultimately became a firm pledge to remove all American combat forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and from the whole country by 2011. He also agreed to give Iraq significant control over combat operations, detentions of prisoners and even prosecutions of American soldiers for grave crimes, though with enough caveats to make charges unlikely.


According to political advisers, Mr. Maliki is intent on changing the nature of Baghdad's relationship with Washington, shifting Iraq's role from a client state to a more equal partner. But internally, the transition from insurgency to politics to governance—a key to stabilizing the country after six years of war—was proving to be anything but steady and sure. Iraq's provincial elections on Jan. 31, 2009, passed with strikingly little mayhem, raising hopes that democracy might take hold.

Mr. Maliki's Dawa party, running as the leader of a coalition called State of Law, was the overwhelming winner, but the bloc fell short of being able to operate without coalition-building. Over all, the results remained divided along sectarian lines, with Shiite-majority provinces choosing Shiite parties and Sunni-majority provinces choosing Sunni parties. The election outcome conveyed a dual message: many Iraqis want a strong central government, rather than one where regions hold more power than the center, but they do not want all the power in the hands of one party.

On the ground in the provinces, however, what happened in the months after the election was something all too familiar to Iraqis: threats, intrigue, back-room deal-making, protests, political paralysis and, increasingly, popular discontent. Almost immediately the campaign for the parliamentary elections began, at least unofficially. Political jockeying and a weakened economy due to oil prices largely stalled progress on most legislative issues.

Mr. Maliki, hoping to build on his success in the provincial elections, sought to form a broader, cross-sectarian coalition that would include Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. Other parties followed suit, appealing for “national unity” in a country where it has rarely before existed, and only then a unity ruled by an iron hand. Mr. Maliki refused to join another, largely Shiite coalition, called the Iraqi National Alliance, which included many of those with whom he formed the country’s first parliamentary majority.

They face a formidable challenge from a coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who served as interim prime minister before the 2005 elections. Mr. Allawi’s alliance, called Iraqiya, drew broader support across the country’s sectarian lines, attracting Mr. Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker who was the most prominent candidate barred from running in March’s election. Jawad al-Bolani, the interior minister, formed a similar coalition with one of Anbar’s most prominent sheiks.


The election is the last major political milestone in Iraq that will be overseen by tens of thousands of American troops, albeit in a largely advisory role. Under the security agreement, the American military returned control of military operations to Iraq’s military and police on Jan. 1, 2009.

President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to end the war, entered office that month indicating that he did not intend to waver from his goal. As a senator and candidate, Mr. Obama did not oppose the security agreement negotiated by Mr. Bush’s administration, largely because it left him considerable flexibility to carry out his campaign pledges. What was initially unclear was how quickly his administration would move to withdraw American forces, particularly in light of advice from General Petraeus's successor, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who had developed a plan for a slower withdrawal — two brigades over six months, compared with one brigade a month. On his first full day in office, he told Pentagon officials and military commanders " to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq. '' A month later, he announced a plan to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010, leaving only 35,000 to 50,000, who would then leave Iraq by December 2011. The timetable was only slightly longer than he had pledged during the campaign.

At the end of June 2009, also in keeping with the security agreement, the vast majority of American troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities, garrisoning themselves on vast bases outside. Mr. Maliki declared June 30 a national holiday, positioning himself as a proud leader who ended the foreign occupation of Iraq. By the end of July, there were no longer any other nations with troops in Iraq — no "multi" in the Multi-National Force. As Iraqi forces have increasingly taken the lead, the United States became the last of the "coalition of the willing" that the Bush administration first assembled in 2003. The withdrawal from the cities – and the reduction in active combat roles – showed in declining American casualties. In December 2009, for the first time since the war began, no American soldier died in a hostile act.

Mr. Maliki’s fanfare about ending the occupation rang hollow for Iraqis who feared that their country's security forces were not yet ready to stand alone. A series of catastrophic attacks in August, October, December and January 2010 – striking government ministries, universities, hotels – only heightened anxiety and suspicion among Iraqis.

Even now, with the end of the American military operation increasingly in sight, the war in Iraq remains divisive, a source of argument even as the Obama administration has refocused attention and resources on Afghanistan.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recently claimed that Iraq would be one of the administration’s great achievements, irritating Bush administration officials who claimed the former president laid the foundations for ending the war by ordering the “surge” in 2007, which, they and others pointed out, Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama had opposed. Mr. Biden remained unbending, criticizing the war he took credit for beginning to end.

“No,” Mr. Biden replied on NBC’s Meet the Press on Feb. 14, when David Gregory flatly asked if the war had been worth it. “I don't think the war was worth it in the sense that we paid a horrible price not only in loss of life, the way the war was mishandled from the outset, but we took our eye off the ball, putting us in a much different and more dangerous position in Afghanistan. We lost support around the world. It's taken hard work to get it back.”