On Dec. 15, Iraqis will vote for their first full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. Key facts:
Number of seats: 275
Women: Guaranteed at least 25 percent of the seats
Number of Voters: More than 15 million registered
Expatriate Voters: Located in 15 countries
Candidates: More than 7,700
Parties: At least 19 broad coalitions, in addition to independent candidates
Parliamentary Term: Four years
Prime Minister: Selected by a two-thirds vote of parliament
Government: Must be formed and seated by Dec. 31
Source: The Associated Press
How will you judge the outcome of this election?
We need to understand that the elections start a process. They don't finish anything. What happens after the election is what's important.
That's when the debate over the constitution will bring Iraq face-to-face with its most difficult questions. The new government must come to terms with the Iraqi definition of federalism, the sharing of oil revenues, taxation, control of the armed forces, the role of religion in the state, the definition of human rights and the real nature of the rule of law.
Progress must be made in all of these areas in the 6-8 months following the election for it to be deemed any kind of success.
We need to have patience and give the Iraqis time. It's going to take months for them to move toward the compromises needed to make their country work.
So it will be some time before we can accurately assess the election's outcome.
What do Iraqis expect from the election?
There is no unified set of expectations. In the Kurdish zone, they still want independence. In the Shia zone, their expectations run from achieving political domination to fostering national compromise. Some Shia are more concerned about control in the southern part of Iraq than in the country as a whole.
A majority of Sunnis are frightened by the Shia and the Kurds. Their voting is an attempt to limit the power of the Kurds and the Shia. Those Sunnis who support the insurgency expect nothing from the elections.
There is a group that sees themselves as Iraqi — rather than Shia, Kurd or Sunni — and hope for national unity. We have no public opinion polls that are reliable. But looking at historical data, it looks like 10 to 15 percent see themselves as "Iraqis."
What does America expect from these elections?
The American people really do not understand the issues at stake. The political debate in the U.S. has been focused on our troops, not the election.
The American government hopes this election will produce an inclusive government, undercutting support for the insurgency. It hopes the Kurds will be given an incentive to stay in Iraq. It hopes the election will give the Shia the confidence to act as nationalists and not purely as Shia.
Will this election have any impact on neighboring countries?
It has always been an illusion to assume that the Iraqi example can influence other states in the Middle East. The election — at best — lays the groundwork for holding Iraq together. We'll know in a year if they've succeeded.
How do Iraqis view the U.S. presence in their country?
It is a very mixed set of perceptions. The only region that views the U.S. presence favorably is the Kurdish area. And that is because the Kurds realize they need a U.S. presence as long as they can have one to ensure their continued independence.
The Shia groups are deeply divided. But for the time being they see U.S. troops as a necessary evil. Still, they want us to leave as soon as is practically possible.
Most Sunnis would like to see the U.S. leave tomorrow.
Will the election of a permanent government lead to a negotiated settlement with the insurgency?
We need to understand that negotiations with the insurgents have been going on for some time and haven't stopped for the election. They've been going on steadily, but with a lower profile.
One thing that we also need to understand is that the Sunnis in this election have never run for office before. Their popular support is simply a matter of guesswork. It's not clear who they speak for and how much authority they have to make compromises.
Will anyone emerge from this election as a surprise leader?
The real question is, will any Sunnis emerge as credible leaders?
The vote count may surprise individual leaders — like current Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. He has lost some support through his actions in office.
But the people to keep an eye on are the Sunnis Tareq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party and Adnan al-Dulaimi of the General Conference of the Iraqi People. They have formed a political alliance. How they do is important. If they get a small proportion of the Sunni vote, it will be dangerous.
Anthony Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He specializes in security policy and Middle East policy. Cordesman has served in several security-related government posts, is the author of more than 20 books and is also a national security analyst for ABC News.