Leading article: Iraq's chance for a happier future

The last time Iraqis went to the polls in 2005, the election set off a chain reaction of slaughter and mayhem that brought that nation to the verge of break-up. The Sunnis boycotted the vote, allowing Shia and Kurdish parties to sweep all before them. Fearing marginalisation, or worse, under the new political order, the Sunni factions intensified their insurgency campaign, inviting a vicious sectarian backlash from the Shia-controlled security forces.

Four years on Iraqis are voting again, this time in provincial council elections. And this time many Iraqis are daring to hope that the poll will prefigure not a fresh round of bloodshed but, quite possibly, a happier new stage in their country's development.

There are two reasons for this optimism. The first is that the Sunni communities, having broken their alliances with al-Qa'ida, are expected to participate in these elections. The second is that opinion polls suggest secular parties are likely to increase their share of the vote at the expense of the religious-based ones that triumphed so emphatically in 2005. For the first time since the US-led invasion, moderate political secularism appears to be on the rise in Iraq.

Complacency would, as ever in this country, be madness. Three Sunni candidates were killed by gunmen yesterday. There is also a real danger over what might follow the poll. The potential for inter-communal conflict remains, especially if there is evidence of electoral fraud. Nor is the terror threat entirely extinguished. Both Iraqi and American military officials have warned that fanatical groups might try to target polling stations.

And yet violence in the campaigning period leading up to today's poll has been low, notwithstanding yesterday's assassinations. And neutral third party observers from the United Nations are cautiously optimistic that the poll could pass off peacefully.

In political terms, the poll results will demonstrate the extent of the support for Nouri al-Maliki's Baghdad administration. If they show a surge in popular support for secular parties, the incumbent prime minister's religious coalition base might look vulnerable. But if the vote of Mr Maliki's own Dawa Party stands up, that should bode well for his prospects in the general elections scheduled for later this year.

But the implications of a peaceful poll are still greater. Iraq's chances of remaining a unitary state will be enhanced. And President Obama's gradual withdrawal of American troops will be able to proceed along the planned timetable.

A country so divided and traumatised by decades of violence is not going to turn into a model democracy overnight. But today Iraq has a chance to become a nation that sorts out its political differences through the ballot box, rather than the gun. For the sake of the Iraqi people, we must hope that this poll is the springboard their fledgling democracy needs.