Voting has been postponed in Kirkuk and is not being held in the semiautonomous Kurdish north, which has had its own government since 1991. But it's the swath of territory between the north and central Iraq where the elections will likely have the most lasting impact.
Here in volatile Nineveh Province, which borders the Kurdish region, the election could end up physically redrawing its boundaries. As the Shiite-Sunni rift that flared into sectarian war in 2006 has waned, concern by US officials is growing over Kurdish-Arab tensions, with recent flare-ups between Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and Mr. Maliki.
Following the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 vote, 31 of Nineveh's 41 seats have been held by Kurds, even though Kurds are a minority in the largely Arab province. Some Kurds on the provincial council, who will almost certainly lose their seats, made a move in December to have the elections stopped.
"It has really been a crisis of a lack of representative government in Nineveh," says one Western analyst here. Officials say the government has been so dysfunctional, that in a region in which unemployment is estimated at more than 50 percent, it spent only 40 percent of the budget allotted to it last year.
There are few places where campaigning has been so rife with threats and intimidation.
"We have been campaigning secretly," says Atheel Abdul Aziz al-Najaefi, head of the Sunni Arab al-Hadba group that has pledged to stop the Kurds from expanding territory by annexing cities and towns along the "green line" – the demarcation of the KRG.