By Liam Carroll
"Elections are an opportunity for substantial improvement or for things to become substantially worse," notes senior US analyst Steven Biddle in reference to last months provincial elections in Iraq.
This decisive view is not unlike US ambassador Ryan Crocker's assessment on leaving Iraq two weeks ago; "almost anything is possible here" declared the diplomat.
The recent provincial elections in Iraq have generally been hailed as a success in terms of procedure and levels of participation, and some optimism for the future of the country has been derived from this flicker of democratic hope.
Further referendums on a military agreement with the US, the final status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and crucial parliamentary elections are also scheduled to be held this year. If all goes well the foundations of a new democratic state may well have been laid.
Analyst Biddle and ambassador Crocker are seasoned observers of the state-building process however and their warnings of potential trouble are not without good grounds.
Elections may determine which parties assume office, but elections in and of themselves offer no guarantees that the big national issues over the distribution of oil revenues and the distribution of power can be speedily resolved.
Middle east oil analyst Yahia Said explains that the long awaited oil law "can and must be part of the solution to Iraq's broader instability and is an essential part of the way forward, but only after thorough discussion."
Difficult constitutional issues over the right balance of power between the central, regional, provincial, and local levels of government also have to be made. "These are issues that are very important and touch at the core of what Iraq is and what Iraq will be," declares Said, and adds, "but this is a process that is very hard to short-circuit or to complete in a short time period."
Unfortunately however speed is of the essence, as a lack of essential services is now the biggest concern for most Iraqis, who still live without clean water, electricity, sewage services and healthcare. The need for improved sanitation to forestall the spread of cholera and typhoid, for example, is not an issue that can be deferred for long.
Furthermore, with more than 2.8 million people displaced in Iraq and another 2 million outside Iraq, analyst Biddle remains concerned that there needs to be "a judicial process where rights of return to property are established and compensation is offered," but fears that "the government of Iraq has zero administrative capacity to do that."
The returning refugees, representing one fifth of the country, will also stretch government capacity "in terms of public health, in terms of housing, in terms of education infrastructure, in terms of just plain sewage," he adds. "There are going to be serious issues, and the government won't be able to meet them. And when that happens, the government's legitimacy is further derogated, and that in turn creates instability."
In the face of failure to meet these "enormous challenges", ambassador Crocker fears "a collapse of faith in the nascent Iraqi state." Opinion remains divided on where this collapse might lead but most analysts take note of the growing power of the Iraqi security services under prime minister Nouri al Maliki.
Steve Biddle thinks that prime minister Maliki could build support for the government "by providing actual services in places like Sadr City" but fears that instead "his natural instincts will be to suppress by military force" expressions of discontent.
The US has spent billions developing Iraq's security forces, and the central government, analysts say, has been on a massive defence-sector buying spree. A strong military may well be needed, but at a time of fractured politics and weak governance, it could also form the base for the next military strongman.