Iraqis go to the polls this Sunday, March 7, and it’s not looking good.

A rumble of violence is spreading across Iraq, and while it’s nothing like the generalized warfare that plagued the country three years ago, it’s a worrying sign that a wrong turn after the elections could lead to an explosion — especially if the vote is rigged, or if the politically disenfranchised outsiders, such as the many Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists, feel that the deck was stacked against them.

The best outcome after March 7 would, in effect, amount to a restoration of sorts, not of the Saddam Hussein-era hardliners, but of a coalition of Iraqis who are prepared to resist Iran and its myriad Iraqi agents, sympathizers, and allies while, at the same time, holding the United States to its deadline for withdrawing US forces by the end of 2011. There is at least a chance that the recent polarization of the electorate, sparked by the purge of candidates by an Iranian-backed commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former darling of the noecons, might backfire. While there are signs that the polarization, designed to terrify Iraqi Shia over the spurious fear of a Saddamist comeback, might stampede many on-the-fence Shia to vote for sectarian Shiite candidates, it’s also possible that the heavyhanded purge will bring a huge turnout of Sunni and secular candidates to the polls, simply to vote against the Shiite coalition and against Prime Minister Maliki. (Maliki, who’s made half-hearted efforts over the past year to cloak himself in nationalist garb, strongly endorsed the purge. And, like the Shiite bloc, the INA, Maliki is waving the bloody shirt of Baathism to rally Shiite voters to his party, too.) A big turnout by Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists might upend Shiite dominance of Iraq by creating the basis for an anti-Iran coalition that could join with the Kurds and some renegade Shiite members of the INA after the election.

Putting together a governing coalition is likely to take four to six months after March 7, in a Wild West-like setting. (It’s during this shaky period that US forces are supposed to drop from 96,000 to 50,000.)

Three huge bombs racked Diyala province, a mixed ethnic and sectarian province northeast of Baghdad along the border with Iran, on Wednesday, killing scores of people, and the province was placed under curfew. In Ramadi, the center of Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the west, tensions are high, and the deputy governor is warning that his constituents are restive. “If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence,” he warns. (The Anbar governor just returned from the United States, where he was fitted with an artificial limb after a recent bomb attack.) In crucial Nineweh province, a northern province that includes Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, Arab-Kurd tension is escalating along the so-called trigger line that separates the Kurds’ expansionist border from Arab Iraq, and Masoud Barzani, the separatist Kurdish leader, has threatened to have his pesh merga paramilitary militia forces arrest the legitimately elected governor simply because he tried to visit a town in his own province that the Kurds consider part of “Kurdistan.” Meanwhile, there have been a series of assassination attempts against candidates for parliament, especially aimed at members of the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi, banned secular leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the party of the Nineweh governor. I’ve spoken to candidates for office who have to travel in heavily armed convoys, who can’t have public rallies, and who fear for their lives at every moment.

Chalabi, the portly liar and wheeler dealer who led the purge of anti-Iran candidates, makes no bones about campaigning as a sectarian Shia. This week, he told the Los Angeles Times that he is proud of his anti-Baathist McCarthyism, and he boasted about his despicable rabble-rousing: “On the issue of the Baath, I don’t think anyone can match me.” The paper described his blatant appeal to sectarianism in a speech to voters

“‘I call for your support, for preventing the return of the Baathists,’ he says, before adding a final, ominous-sounding pledge to his Shiite audience, one that leaves little doubt as to the tone of his campaign.

“‘We support your sect and we will protect it,’ he says, before being hustled back into his vehicle by his bodyguards for the journey home through the slum, now shrouded in darkness.”

Allawi, the standard bearer for the secular nationalists, and his allies have been campaigning hard, and not just in Iraq. Both Allawi, a secular Shia, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who used to be part of the Sunni religious bloc, have been traveling in neighboring Arab countries where millions of Iraqi voters have fled in the seven years since the US invasion. In Jordan and Syria alone, up to two million displaced Iraqis are eligible to vote, and many of them hail from the critical electoral cauldron of Baghdad province, which was ethnically cleansed by Iranian-backed Shiite death squads between 2004 and 2007. The votes of the two million Iraqi refugees, plus another two million internally displaced persons, might be critical in Sunday’s vote — if they’re counted, and fairly.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Allawi warned that the thuggish Maliki is becoming a mini-Saddam himself, adding these strong words:

“We accept there will be a margin of irregularities in this situation. We are not going to accept a large portion of irregularities. That means a failure of democracy in Iraq. We will get out of the political process. If this happens, it will point Iraq towards a very violent and stormy future.

“If the political process is against the will of the people and filled with irregularities, I will stay away and I will call on others to boycott the process. If I am elected, I will resign from parliament.”

Stay tuned.