BAGHDAD: When it comes to elections in Iraq, the United States is caught in a classic Catch-22. Go ahead with the vote amid the current violence, Iraqi analysts argue, and hundreds of thousands of people will boycott or be left out of the process , making it far from credible.
Postpone the event, and Iraqis, the vast majority of whom desperately want to vote, will be up in arms, incensed that another promise America made has vanished in a cloud of smoke.
"If the elections are delayed, there will be a great deal of anger, even violence," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University and the head of a small political party.
"But if the elections are held in this environment, under the auspices of an occupying power, I think many people will boycott them... Any election that is supervised by an occupation force will not be free and fair," he told Reuters. It is hardly the scenario President George W. Bush envisaged.
His advisers said the militants, once estimated by the US military to number just 5,000, would be quashed easily, billions of dollars in reconstruction funds would start to flow, the United Nations would return to help organize nationwide polls and 25 million Iraqis would be happily on the road to democracy.
Instead, the insurgency appears to be strengthening, hardly any reconstruction funds have been spent, only about 30 UN staffers are in the country and democracy is in jeopardy.
The election, due to be held by the end of January, is a key marker on Iraq's path to democracy. But with daily bombings, kidnappings and shootings, doubts on its timing have multiplied.
The United Nations, which oversaw the recent appointment of Iraq's electoral commission and has advised on how to register voters, now has doubts about whether the poll should go ahead.
Secretary General Kofi Annan said last week he didn't see how a credible vote could be held amid the spiralling violence. Sensing a potential pitfall for Bush, presidential hopeful John Kerry has also questioned whether polls should go ahead.
BAD ELECTION OR NO ELECTION?: The US administration, and the Iraqi government it backs, now find themselves backed up against a wall. Having fixed a January deadline and staked so much on giving Iraqis the freedom they want, they will be very hard pressed to pull away now.
At the same time, convincing the world that democracy has truly arrived in Iraq will be a tall order if the election is boycotted, thousands can't vote or militants carry out attacks.
Such a scenario is not unlikely. In the past week alone, more than 300 Iraqis, many of them police and National Guardsmen, have been killed in car bombings and clashes.
Large crowds of voters gathering at any of the expected 4,000 polling sites on election day are likely to be tempting targets for gunmen and bombers bent on disruption.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said the polls will go ahead as planned and argues that it won't matter if some towns and cities don't vote. If 300,000 people - the population of rebel-held Falluja - are left out, he has said, it won't affect the will of the rest of the Iraqi people.
But Falluja is not the only trouble-spot. Ramadi is also in insurgent hands, and towns such as Samarra, Baquba, Mosul and Baghdad have plenty of militants who could spark election chaos.
The US military plans to launch an offensive against all rebel strongholds in the hope of crushing them by the end of December and handing security over to Iraqi forces for the poll.
Such an offensive might prove successful, but it would mean intense fighting and heavy casualties in the election run-up, hardly the sort of backdrop conducive to healthy voter turnout.
Yet US Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the election can still happen on time. "The major problem we're facing right now is the insurgency, and it has to be dealt with," he told the Washington Times last week.
One political group, the Shia SCIRI party, says it wants the poll to proceed, but would understand if national interests force a delay. That's where the United Nations could intervene.
Ghassan al-Attiyah, a political analyst and head of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, believes that if the world body, in coordination with the US administration and the Iraqi government, declares there's no way for the poll to go ahead, it may open the way for a face-saving postponement.
That would be better than a bad, boycotted election held on the rubble of a US military offensive, Attiyah believes. "If there's a mass boycott, the election results will be polarized...then we'll be a step nearer to civil war," he said. -Reuters