When Iraq holds nationwide parliamentary elections on April 30, it will be with parts of its Sunni west in armed revolt and amid rising fears the country could be edging toward civil war.
For 15 weeks, government troops have been battling to retake parts of the western province of Anbar from a coalition of antigovernment tribal forces and global jihadists. The drive to pacify the province comes after fighting broke out during a government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the provincial capital Ramadi in December and quickly escalated into an armed revolt.
Government forces have regained nominal control of most of Anbar. But there is still fighting over several suburbs of Ramadi and all of the city of Fallujah remains in rebel hands.
RFE/RL's Iraq Service correspondent Raad al-Khashea says some 30,000 troops are deployed in Anbar, the majority around Fallujah. There, efforts to push out the rebels have been complicated by insurgents' control of a nearby dam on the Euphrates, which they used twice this month to flood the southern approaches to the city.
Al-Khashea says the flooding has forced the army to pull farther back from the southern districts and rely on longer-range mortar and artillery to try to dislodge the rebels. However, the greater distance has increased the danger inaccurate shelling poses to civilians in the city, where people are being killed or injured every day as a result.
"The shells are falling without being specifically targeted, they're falling on women and children," said a Fallujah resident who asked not to be identified. "You can hear the children wailing in the middle of the night."
Masked Sunni gunmen pose with their weapons during a patrol outside the city of Falluja.
Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political-risk analyst who publishes" Inside Iraqi Politics," says much of Sunni Iraq has fallen "outside the writ of the government."
He notes that since December "Fallujah has gone from sort of nominal government control to insurgent control." He says that areas that were under solid government control, like Ramadi, have gone to a sort of weak or nominal control where the insurgency does not continually hold ground, "but they can hit wherever they want."
At the same time, the violence in Anbar has displaced almost 400,000 people, or about one-third of the province's population, according to the International Organization for Migration. Most of the displaced have moved to other locations within the province, or elsewhere within the Sunni heartland of central Iraq.
Who Will Vote?
The unrest has greatly complicated preparations for elections, making them impossible to hold in Fallujah and raising high security concerns in Ramadi. But even in more rural areas where elections can be held, there is a question of how many people will vote amid widespread bitterness against the government over the fighting and displacements.
"We call on the politicians to find a solution for these people -- how long will they stay like this?" asked a resident of Ramadi recently. "You are looking for their votes, but whom are they going to elect under these conditions? Who is going to vote for you?"
The renewed fighting in Anbar has greatly set back efforts the United States made before its withdrawal to encourage the inclusion of the Sunni in Iraq's political process. Washington successfully enlisted Sunni tribes in Anbar in the fight against Al-Qaeda, an effort widely credited with helping to reverse the country's plunge toward sectarian civil war in 2006-2008.
But today people in Anbar are divided over whether to continue to seek inclusion in Iraq's political process or try to topple the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki instead.
Ahmed Ali, senior Iraq research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, says that means the April 30 election will provide a snapshot of how much faith Sunnis in Anbar have in politics. He notes that "if there is a low turnout in Anbar, we will likely see further violence and better opportunities for militant groups" in the province following the election.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the U.S.-based Middle East Forum, in Philadelphia, says the challenge now for Maliki is not merely to hold a new round of elections and perhaps bring new faces into the government. It is to demonstrate to the Sunni community that the Shi'ite-dominated political establishment can go beyond simply making alliances with individual Sunni politicians and directly address popular Sunni grievances.
"The problem is what happens on the ground," says Tamimi. He notes that the Sunni grievances that originally fueled the protest-camp movement that escalated into armed conflict are problems that touch ordinary Sunnis and have yet to be solved by the political system.
The Sunnis want an end to mass arrests under Iraq's sweeping antiterrorism laws that they say are used to target their community and reforms to Iraq's de-Ba'athification process, which excludes former higher members of the former Sunni-dominated ruling Ba'athist Party from holding office. The Sunnis also want more of their members included in the security services and more programs to generate employment in Sunni areas.
Tamimi says that until those complaints are addressed, parts of the Sunni community, led by former Ba'athists, will continue to make common cause with global jihadists seeking to overthrow the state. So long as they do, the level of violence in Iraq and the risk of civil war are likely to keep growing.
The legislative elections on April 30, the first since the U.S. withdrawal in late 2011, are widely expected to hand Maliki a third four-year term as prime minister.