US President George W. Bush and his government are hopeful that Iraq's first election Sunday will be a key turning point in a conflict that has proven to be more difficult than the Bush administration anticipated.
At the same time, US officials have played down expectations that the election, while a crucial step, will quickly change the situation on the ground or take place under ideal conditions.
"Nobody from the beginning has ever said that this is going to be a perfect election," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday.
Iraqi voters on Sunday will select a transitional national assembly that will be responsible for drafting a constitution and is scheduled to hold elections for a permanent government by the end of the year.
Building a new, permanent government in Iraq is essential for a US withdrawal from the country, but that will not take place, officials say, until Baghdad can provide security without the help of the US.
Iraqi forces are being internationally trained at a slower pace than expected, and some of the homegrown troops have refused to follow orders or show up for duty. Some have even joined the bloody insurgency that has taken its toll on Iraqi and US forces.
A senior US State Department official said that by replacing the government set up by the US and conducting elections, the Iraqi security forces will see the value in defending a government chosen by Iraqis.
"The establishment of a legitimate government with a vision for the future is critical, because if you're going to ask Iraqi security forces to go out and combat other Iraqis who timate government," the official said.
Keeping the process moving along in Iraq is crucial for Bush at home, where the public is growing increasingly sceptical of the war.
One recent poll showed 75 percent of the public believes US troops will still be in Iraq when Bush leaves office in four years.
His second term began last week.
Bush and his deputies have warned that as the election nears, the insurgents will grow more violent in trying to intimidate voters and disrupt the democratic process.
Militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian native and al-Qaeda operative who has claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks, said he will not relent.
"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," al-Zarqawi said in a tape that surfaced Sunday. "Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it."
Al-Zarqawi's group said it carried out this week's bombing outside the Baghdad headquarters of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, wounding 10 people.
Despite the violence, US officials are confident Iraqis will want to vote, but those who do probably won't feel very safe.
"Given the nature and history of violence in Iraq over the last few months, I wouldn't expect the best exposition of security arrangements to be necessarily convincing," the senior State Department official said. "It's going to take an act of courage on the part of Iraqis."
Fourteen of Iraq's 18 provinces are relatively stable, and the US expected most of the violence to take place in three Sunni provinces north of Baghdad and in parts of the capital, which is its own province, the official said.
For the Bush administration, the elections will also serve as a challenge to other Middle Eastern countries and leaders to introduce democratic and economic reforms, a position that will likely come into greater focus during the second term.