Iraqis Hopeful Ahead of Election

Iraqis go to the polls Thursday in the second parliamentary election here in less than a year. This time they're voting for a full, four-year government backed by the constitution passed in an October referendum.

"We have to participate in the elections to try and improve things," said Azhar Zuhair, 22, a student at Baghdad University.

A recent ABC News poll conducted with Time magazine and other international media partners found restoration of security to be the top concern here. Most of the more than 300 political entities that the Independent Election Commission of Iraq certified for the campaign have made some sort of promise regarding security.

To safeguard the vote, U.S. troops have conducted numerous operations in some of this country's most restive places.

"There will be a spike in violence as the enemy tries to destabilize [the election]," said Lt. Col. Jim Blackburn, commander of the 1/11 Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district.

Many Iraqis have said they hope the election signals the beginning of American troop withdrawal.

"And this can begin, in my judgment, and it can begin once the elections are over and with the new Iraqi government in place," Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told ABC News.

A Western diplomat in Baghdad has said he expects the religious Shia bloc, which controls the country now, to get the most votes on Thursday.

"It is not important who becomes prime minister," incumbent Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told ABC News. "What is important is for the process to work well."

Who becomes prime minister matters a lot for many Iraqis, especially those concerned about the increasing influence of religion in the current ruling coalition.

"My fear is that we're going to be like a second Iran," said Zainab Hussein, a 26-year-old Iraqi journalist.

Among those opposing the religious Shiites is a secular coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Sunni statesman Adnan Pachachi, and Safiah al-Suheil, an Iraqi woman who sat next to first lady Laura Bush at the State of the Union address.

"We are insisting on unifying our country," she told ABC News. "We place a high importance on building an Iraqi nation."

It is a lofty goal not easily achieved. Despite the wide array of candidates, parties and coalitions, messages hardly seem to differ. Many Iraqis will make their selection based on tribe and religion.

Iraqis can use today to reflect. Campaigning is not allowed. The curfew has been extended, the airport shut, borders sealed, and cars ordered off the streets.

"I am optimistic about the future of this country," Mustafa, a government employee said. "What we are after is mainly security and stability. We hope that the upcoming elections will provide that for us."