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NAIROBI, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) will this month rule on whether six political figures suspected of masterminding the deadly violence that followed a disputed presidential election in December 2007 will be put on trial.
The decision could affect the outcome of general elections due later this year in the east African country, which is mired in a potentially protracted war against al Qaeda-linked militants in neighbouring Somalia.
Here are some of the risk factors ahead:
There are two cases at the ICC, each involving three Kenyans, and are split mainly between ethnic Kikuyu and Kalenjin camps. They were the groups behind much of the violence that killed about 1,300 people following the election.
The ICC is expected to rule around January 20 on whether it will try the politicians. It said it will announce its decision on the two cases on the same day, to avoid any potential ethnic tensions between the two groups.
The stakes are high.
Two of the suspects, former cabinet minister William Ruto and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta, plan to run for the presidency in next year's election. Analysts say their chances would be seriously damaged by a trial.
What to watch:
-- If the cases are thrown out, the potential presidential candidates could get a boost.
-- If both Ruto and Kenyatta are indicted, would the ICC issue arrest warrants requiring Kenya hand them over to The Hague, and if so, would the country comply?
-- Despite Kenya being an ICC signatory, it has been very critical of the court and supportive of Sudanese President avoiding an ICC arrest warrant.
-- If they are indicted, and do not have to be in the custody of the ICC, would they be allowed to retain their public positions? More importantly, could they run for the presidency under Kenya's new constitution that bars tainted officials from running for public office?
-- Failure to cooperate with the ICC would concern foreign investors and Western governments who want Kenya to combat impunity ahead of elections this year.
-- If one case continues and the other is rejected, there may be anger and a feeling of being singled out by one ethnic group, heightening tribal animosities between the groups.
Kenya sent troops into Somalia last October to crush al Shabaab, accusing the militant network of attacks on its security forces and tourists inside Kenya.
Al Shabaab, fighting to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia law, has denied being behind the kidnappings and said it will take revenge against Kenya, the latest foreign power to try to stabilise Somalia.
Analysts say Kenya could be sucked into a wider regional conflict now Ethiopia has also sent military trucks and armoured vehicles into central Somalia.
Kenya's advance on key rebel strongholds still appears stalled, with occasional airstrikes by Kenyan jets, some skirmishes in southern Somalia and low-level attacks on convoys in areas close to its porous frontier with Somalia.
Kenya wants its forces in Somalia to be integrated into the African Union AMISOM force that has about 9,400 peacekeepers deployed in Mogadishu. Kenya is pushing for a more robust "peace enforcement" mandate for its troops in southern Somalia than the peacekeeping mandate of the troops operating in Mogadishu.
What to watch:
-- Kenya says the mission is open-ended and it will stay until al Shabaab's network is dismantled. But this could take time and may require additional budget support.
-- Major Somali civilian casualties could rally support for the rebels.
-- Military incursions by the U.S. and Ethiopia failed to pacify Somalia. Significant Kenyan casualties could weaken current widespread support for the mission.
-- Two grenade attacks in the capital Nairobi have scared residents and led to beefed up security in public places. More attacks may erode backing for the incursion and deter tourists.
-- There is a large Somali and Kenyan-Somali population in Kenya that could be antagonised.
-- Becoming a part of AMISOM may be delayed for months as issues of funding, command and control need to be resolved.
Kenya's parliament has scrambled to meet a one-year deadline for the passing of dozens of crucial bills to give the new constitution adopted in August 2010 legs to stand on. But a key outstanding issue is when the next election will be held.
The constitution stipulates the election should be held on Aug. 14 2012, but Kenya's cabinet is pushing for a mid-December 2012 date, citing logistical hurdles.
The vote would be to elect the president and parliament, as well as senators, county governors and civic officials.
A bill with amendments to enshrine the December date is with parliament, and is due to be voted on in February. Parliament has the mandate to change the constitution.
The proposal has been divisive among legislators, and has been dismissed by the commission for implementation of the constitution.
However, the authority tasked with overseeing the elections backs the December date saying it would not have enough time to prepare the new constituencies and implement other changes to ensure a fair electoral process if polls are held in August.
The High Court is expected to make a ruling on the election date in January.
What to watch:
-- The court may uphold the August election date, then a month later parliament could vote for the change to December, causing a political rift and tension before the elections.
-- One of the cases in court challenges parliament's authority to change the election date on its own and argues only a national referendum can do so. Will the court back calls for a referendum? If so, it would pit the public against parliament and increase political uncertainty. (Editing by Sophie Hares)