By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
Trends suggest traditional religious parties are loosing their hold on Iraqi politics
The Iraqi provincial elections on Saturday look set to mark a significant milestone in the country's tortuous recovery from the years of turmoil and disintegration that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
If they pass off without significant disruption, the Sunni-based insurgency, which wrought so much havoc for most of those years, will have suffered another major setback.
In Sunni areas, where the insurgency formerly held sway and previous elections were virtually impossible to hold, candidates are standing, competition has been brisk, and in most, a healthy turnout is expected.
Both Iraqi and American military officials have warned that al-Qaeda in Iraq or related Sunni extremist groups may try to carry out bomb attacks on polling stations.
But the run-up electioneering period saw few serious incidents. And even if election day sees some attacks, they are unlikely to influence the overall outcome.
There have also been warnings that, with more than 14,000 candidates vying for just 440 provincial council seats nationwide, the large number of disgruntled losers could lead to disturbances, particularly if - as has been predicted - allegations of fraud or vote-rigging abound.
But assuming all these obstacles are overcome, successful elections will give a message of stability that will favour further US troop reductions in the coming months and enhance Iraq's chances of holding together as an integrated state.
They will also crystallise important developments in the Iraqi political arena which will set the scene for general elections at the end of the year and the formation of a new Iraqi government.
Security measures on polling day will be stringent including a ban on vehicular movement
The three provinces that currently make up autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the north are not holding provincial elections this time, for internal reasons (the Kurdistan parliament has yet to pass a provincial elections law).
The disputed province of Kirkuk, which the Kurds would like to see added to Kurdistan, is also sitting it out for the moment because of unresolved local issues and tensions.
But in the country's remaining 14 provinces, the elections will provide a significant opportunity for a major reshuffle of the political cards in both the Shia and Sunni political communities, which were thrown into chaos by the abrupt removal of three decades of tight dictatorship under Saddam Hussein.
The results will be carefully scrutinised, and are far from predictable, given the lack of precedents, the plethora of new parties and alliances, and the unfamiliarity of many of the new candidates.
But some patterns already seem to be emerging.
On both the Sunni and Shia sides, the big, religious-orientated alliances which have dominated Iraqi politics for the last four years, have splintered.
On the Shia side, the United Iraqi Coalition stood as one umbrella group in general elections in 2005, won the lion's share of the seats, and divided them up among the largely religious factions which belonged to it.
Most of the parties that emerged from the last elections were religious, and they didn't bring the people changes for the better
Dr Riyadh al-Adhadh
Iraqi Islamic Party candidate
But now the constituent groups are standing separately, often under different names, and competing with one another.
Significantly, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Daawa Party, once a clearly religious faction, is standing as the State of Law Coalition, stressing nationalist Iraqi positions rather than Shia religious ones.
Observers will be watching closely to see whether this apparent trend towards nationalism and away from religious parties rebounds negatively on what was the biggest Shia faction - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council - and its leader Abdul Aziz Hakim.
Opinion polls have suggested that more Iraqis intend to vote for secular parties than for the currently-dominant religious-based ones, because of general disillusion over broken promises, incompetence and corruption over the past six years.
But the pull of patronage and tribal and religious loyalties may prove strong, making the outcome uncertain.
On the Sunni side, the major factions and regions boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005.
Now, the Sunni umbrella coalition known as Tawafuq or the Accord Front, has been whittled down by the defection of almost all but the biggest of its partners, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP).
One IIP candidate, Dr Riyadh al-Adhadh, agreed that the country is witnessing a backlash against the religious parties.
"It's true, because most of the parties that emerged from the last elections were religious, and they didn't bring the people changes for the better," he said.
"Now, we are choosing professional people to stand for the provincial council."
If it ends up being reflected in the results, the apparent trend away from the religious parties could favour the main secular alliance, the Iraqi List, headed by Iyyad Allawi, the country's first prime minister after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Other secular groups, such as Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Council, could also benefit.
All in all, if the elections pass off largely peacefully and the results are at least tolerated by disgruntled losers, the outcome will be greatly reassuring to the many Iraqis who feared, during the darkest days of sectarian carnage in 2006-7, that their country was being torn to pieces.
The respected think tank, the International Crisis Group, which has issued many stark reports about Iraq in recent years, was unusually upbeat about the provincial polls in a recent report.
"Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all-out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point," it said.