BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's interim government intends to proceed with elections in January even if the United Nations (search) withdraws its experts from the country and insurgents dramatically step up attacks, according to the top U.N. election official here and a senior member of the Iraqi election commission.
Such resolve — or bravado — in the face of the intensifying violence reflects the widely held view that Iraq's postwar future rides on the January ballot. Voters will choose a 275-member legislature that will draft a permanent constitution.
If adopted, the document will be the basis for a second general election by Dec. 15, 2005.
The vote will also provide an exit strategy for the United States, whose troops account for the bulk of the 160,000-strong multinational force that has remained in this country after Iraq regained sovereignty in June.
More than 1,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq since last year's U.S.-led invasion. With scores more killed every week, there is widespread fear that militants will escalate their attacks in the run-up to the vote, causing many Iraqis to stay home on election day.
A low turnout stemming from the tenuous security could rob the election of much of its credibility, which would be a boost to militants fighting to drive out foreign troops and bring down the U.S.-backed interim government.
The gravity of the situation has led two organizations representing more than 60,000 U.N. staff members to urge Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) to pull all U.N. staff out of Iraq, citing a dramatic escalation in attacks.
Annan withdrew all U.N. foreign staff from Iraq a year ago, following two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. The first, on Aug. 22, 2003, killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Viera de Mello (search) and 21 others. In August, Annan allowed a small U.N. contingent to return and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers, but he has been under pressure to raise the number to help Iraq prepare for elections.
Carlos Valenzuela, the chief U.N. election adviser in Iraq, said the world body's role in the election was "important, but not essential." The United Nations has already helped set up the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to run the election.
"It would be a setback, certainly, if the U.N. were to pull out ... but the U.N. has no plans to pull out from Iraq. In fact, the chances are that its personnel will be increased, despite opposition from U.N. staff unions," Valenzuela told The Associated Press.
Farid Ayar, one of seven Iraqis who sit on the electoral commission's board, also sounded a positive note, saying no amount of violence or bloodshed could postpone the election.
"This is out of the question no matter what happens," he told AP in an interview at the commission's offices in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy as well as important government offices.
"A tragedy will befall Iraq if the elections are not held. They must be held in any form, so long as they are democratic," said Ayar, also the commission's spokesman. He dismissed as unlikely the possibility that voting might not take place in areas hardest hit by violence.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who returned this week from a visit to the United States and Britain, declared his unwavering commitment to holding the election as planned after a visit Wednesday to the commission's offices.
"My government is adamant that elections should take place at the specified time in January," he said. "It will be a distinctive landmark in the region and in Iraq's history."
Ayar said that even if there were a few areas with low turnout, that should not detract from the election's significance.
With under four months left before the vote, Allawi seems to be making some headway using both military and political means to fulfill his pledge to restore security in time for the election.
A swift military operation last weekend by a joint U.S.-Iraqi force appears to have broken the insurgents' hold on the city of Samarra north of Baghdad. Fallujah, another militant stronghold, has been bombarded for weeks by U.S. air and ground forces targeting suspected hideouts.
Negotiations between representatives from Fallujah and Allawi's Cabinet to bring the city under government control are close to fruition, according to chief Fallujah negotiator Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili.
In Sadr City, a restive Baghdad district where Shiite militiamen loyal to a radical cleric have been fighting U.S. troops on and off for months, a similar pact is close to being reached, according to aides to the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. The mainly Shiite Sadr City is home to as many as 2.5 million people, about 10 percent of Iraq's entire population.
But even if Allawi's government pacifies all the trouble spots in time for the vote, the security risks remain huge. Militants have been targeting Iraqi police and security personnel and Iraqis working for the Americans, Western contractors or foreign news organizations.
Despite the threats, the government plans to deploy up to 150,000 Iraqis as election workers on the day of the ballot, which has not been fixed. Thousands of polling stations will be operating across the nation.
On Thursday, dozens of young Iraqis gathered outside the election commission's offices to learn whether they will hired as registration clerks. The six-week stint, starting Nov. 1, pays $500.
One applicant was Mohammed Maguid, a veteran of the 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1991 Gulf War.
"Nothing scares me anymore," said the 40-year-old unemployed father of six. "I've seen everything."