Iraq's Elections: The Match-Ups

Iraq's elections tomorrow are local affairs meant to choose the leadership of 14 of the country's 18 provinces. But the implications are national.

Previously, Iraq's finger-inking electoral spectacles were largely ethnic referenda. The religious Shiites formed their big coalition and harvested the votes of their dutiful followers. Most Sunnis boycotted and those who did vote went for the big Sunni ticket. Kurds voted for a Kurdish list that conveniently tied up all the often contentious Kurdish factions.

Not so in this contest over individual provinces, most of which are homogeneously Shiite or Sunni (the Kurdish provinces vote this summer). Now Shiite titans are facing off against each other and the divided Sunnis are in a free-for-all. The vote could finally show which parties have genuine grass roots support and whether certain ideologies are gaining ground, which will determine the alliances formed for the crucial national elections scheduled for December.

It will take days to get reliable results and weeks to interpret them. Many candidates claiming to be "independent" are really plants who are expected to hitch up with bigger partners later when the councils vote to fill the powerful governorships. Here are some of the match-ups to watch.

Maliki vs. Hakim: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) have been the two Shiite powerhouses since they returned from exile behind American tanks. With Dawa the weaker partner, they have shared power in government and have previously ridden tickets together. But now they run against each other as they wrestle for control of Shiite provinces across southern Iraq.

Maliki has used his incumbent power to cultivate tribal figures, setting up paid support councils and rewarding them with government projects. It's cut deep into ISCI influence and the contest has become acrimonious. Dawa, in general, seeks a strong central government while some ISCI leaders hope victory in southern provinces could lead to the formation of a relatively autonomous Shiite federal region across the south which could enhance the clout of ISCI's long-time ally, Iran.

Secular vs. Religious: The clichéd wisdom is that Iraqis are tired of the religious parties that have dominated the last five years. Corruption is rampant and public services are still lacking. The national government and the local provinces are nearly all run by fundamentalists now, whether Sunni or Shiite. Some here hope the fundamentalists will lose ground, which would be good news to American and European observers concerned about women's rights and individual freedoms.

While most expect secular factions, including ones backed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and another linked to Ahmed Chalabi, to make inroads, they are not expected to surge. The religious parties are the best funded, most organized and draw support from the masses more concerned with stability than liberal freedoms.

Old Sunnis vs. New Sunnis: Sunni provinces have been run by the factions that braved threats and assassinations to win the tiny vote totals during the greater Sunni boycott. Now the Sunnis who boycotted are in the game. They include bulk of the tribal leaders, with insurgent ties, who feel they deserve a place in power for turning against Al Qaeda.

This basically pits against each other two movements that served American purposes early on in getting Sunnis in the government and, in the case of the latter group, fighting terror. If they peacefully divide power, it could be an important step forward. If the new Sunnis end up feeling cheated, they could return to violence or let Al Qaeda back in the door.

Arabs vs. Kurds: In Ninevah province, Arab candidates hope to break a Kurdish stronghold on the council. Then they hope to use their clout to force Kurdish militias out of areas they control, all potentially combustible.

Sunnis vs. Shiites: This familiar contest in mixed areas like Baghdad and Diyala is renewed with greater participation expected from Sunnis. Their numbers aren't great enough to win--Baghdad is probably three-quarters Shiite--but they can increase their representation.

Insiders vs. Exiles: Most of the parties in power are led by figures that made their contact with America during their exiles. But parties led by Iraqis who lived through Saddam Hussein's tyranny are becoming more organized and could see modest gains.

Sadrists vs. Shiite powers: The movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been disorganized and subdued since government forces pounded them in the spring. They are not running official candidates for the councils but have backed purported independents. Their success could show what kind of street support continues for Sadr, who is said to studying religion in Iran.