Preparations for the crucial January election are "on track" and the absence of international observers due to the country's tenuous security should not detract from the vote's credibility, the top U.N. (search) electoral expert here said.

The January election is seen as a major step in Iraq's path to democratic rule. The United States, which formally ended its occupation of Iraq in June but still wields vast influence, sees the vote as a key step toward establishing a stable government.

"International observation is important only in that it's symbolic," Carlos Valenzuela told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "I don't think that the process will be less credible without observers, absolutely not. They are not the essence. They are not essential. They are not important. If they can come, fine, of course."

To enable the vote to take place throughout Iraq, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations are underway to break the hold of Sunni (search) insurgents in areas south, north and west of the capital Baghdad.

Iraqis will select a 275-seat assembly whose main task will be to draft a constitution. If adopted, the document will be the foundation for a second vote to be held by Dec. 15.

Valenzuela rejected criticism that the United Nations was not doing enough to help Iraq prepare for the election, saying that U.N. experts have provided important assistance to the election's organizer — the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

He said of the 35 U.N. international staffers in Iraq, 10 were electoral experts. He said 15 more experts were being recruited and were expected to arrive in Iraq at the beginning of January. But he warned against judging the U.N. electoral role on numbers alone.

"It's completely ridiculous to say that the work of the United Nations depends on the number of U.N. electoral officers because the U.N. was never supposed to do the work the Iraqis are doing and were always meant to do," he said. "People, probably naively, expected that hundreds of U.N. staff will be all over the place. That was never the mandate."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari complained Wednesday that that United Nations was not providing adequate support to the election process.

"It is unfortunate that the contribution and participation of U.N. employees in this process is not up to expectations," he said.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday it is still "technically possible" for Iraq to hold the elections as scheduled. Annan acknowledged that the United Nations may not have enough staff on the scene to support preparations for the vote. The dispatch of additional U.N. staff to Iraq will depend on security or protection arrangements.

U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped the United Nations would play a major role in helping Iraq organize the election, a role the world body has played in numerous countries emerging from tyranny or civil strife. But U.N. chief Kofi Annan has imposed a ceiling of 35 on the number of international staffers permitted in Iraq because of security.

He had pulled U.N. international staff from Iraq a year ago, following a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers and two bombings at the organization's Baghdad headquarters. One attack killed at least 17 people, including the U.N.'s top envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said Fiji has offered 130 troops to protect U.N. staff and facilities in Iraq — the first country to respond to requests for a protection force separate from U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.

Valenzuela acknowledged that the U.N. target number for electoral experts assigned to Iraq was 35, but said it was never specified that all had to come from the United Nations.

Already, he explained, about 15 U.N. electoral officers were based in Amman, in neighboring Jordan, and that four experts from the International Foundation for Election Systems, a Washington-based organization, were working in Baghdad.

Valenzuela said the electoral commission already has hired 400 electoral officers, of whom more than 300 were stationed outside Baghdad. Close to 6,000 Iraqis were undergoing training to be clerks at 548 voter registration centers across Iraq. Registration will be begin Nov. 1.

He said the commission was due to issue detailed instructions Saturday for registering political parties and individuals wishing to run.

"It's a very tight timeline. Things could go wrong. Everyone knew that it was going to be a race against time. But, so far, everything is on track," he said.

Valenzuela, a Colombian, said he was more concerned with the availability of local electoral observers and monitors from political "entities" participating in the election than with whether foreign observers could come to Iraq.

Valenzuela, who has been involved in several post-conflict elections around the world, said international observation teams often arrive days before voting takes place, are rarely familiar with the country they go to and never able to visit more than several polling stations.

"What's important and have always been important, and the United Nations has always emphasized this, is local observation," he said.