The chief U.N. election official in Iraq said yesterday that elections could still be held next week despite the torrent of violence that has shaken the country.
There had been an "intense campaign of intimidation" against Iraqi election officials, said Carlos Valenzuela, a Colombian who has helped to run 14 elections in other parts of the world. Eight Iraqi election staff had been killed and several others had resigned.
But he added: "Preparations have been made all over the country so every eligible voter who wants to go out to vote can do so."
Mr Valenzuela described the vote as a "daunting challenge". He said: "Security in a transitional election is never good, never ideal. But it doesn't disqualify elections from taking place."
He admitted he was concerned about fresh outbreaks of violence in troubled Sunni Muslim towns such as Samarra and Baquba, both north of the capital, and in western Baghdad.
Changes have already been introduced to the voting rules to encourage Sunnis from other violent towns, such as Falluja and Ramadi in the west, and Mosul in the north, to vote.
Unlike other Iraqis, they will be able to register and vote on the same day. Voters from Falluja and Ramadi will be able to cast their ballot anywhere in their province. Refugees who fled Falluja before the U.S. military assault on the city in November can vote in polling stations set up in refugee camps and in western Baghdad.
Six of the eight Iraqi election commissioners working in Mosul had been forced to resign late last year after a campaign of threats and intimidation, Mr Valenzuela said. But replacements had now been recruited. The U.S. assault on Falluja meant election officials in the nearby province were unable to work. Others had "gone underground," he said.
The mechanics of the vote present the biggest logistics challenge since the war. About 12.5 million Iraqis are registered to vote and 5,000 polling centers, mostly in government schools, will be established for the day of the election, January 30.
Iraq's election commission will face huge security difficulties not only in protecting voters as they enter polling centers but also in protecting the vote tallies as they are taken back to Baghdad.
Voters will be marked with indelible ink, to prevent multiple voting, but that could put them at risk of retribution. In previous difficult elections, such as those in Cambodia in 1993 and South Africa in 1994, invisible ink was used. But in Iraq voters will be marked with visible ink. "The Iraqis felt it was incredibly important that people realized there was not going to be multiple voting," Mr Valenzuela said.
Voters' names will be crossed off a list once they have cast their ballot and those lists could also be used in future for recriminations by insurgents who are bitterly opposed to the vote.
A total of 7,785 candidates are standing for election to the 275-seat national assembly. But, because of the heightened security fears, few of those candidates have been named. In the final days before the vote, the election commission will publish the full candidate list in the Iraqi press.
On the day, voters will be presented with a large ballot paper, with the names of 111 parties and coalitions. Each has its own number and most have their own symbol, ranging from date palms to maps of Iraq, medals, a candle and a lion's head. Given the vast scale of the operation and the tough security restrictions it is likely to be up to 10 days before the result is known.
Leading Shia figures yesterday played down concerns that the election could disenfranchise the Sunni constituency and give it little alternative but to wage all-out civil war.
A statement issued by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a movement which is part of the Shia house coalition expected to dominate the election, said: "Not winning in the elections does not mean absence from the stage of activity and impact."
Another Shia leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the Dawa party, which sits in the same coalition, said: "The background of those who are victimizing Shi'ites might be Sunni, but there is wide understanding that they do not represent Sunni thinking.
"Neither Sunnis nor Shi'ites are prepared to accept civil war," he told Reuters.