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Fears over elections timed to coincide with haj pilgrimage

The announcement that the first elections in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime will be on 30 January was greeted yesterday with warnings that a viable poll could not take place in the continuing climate of violence.

The election campaign will also coincide with the haj in mid-January, and the transit of several million pilgrims from Muslim countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan overland through Iraq to Mecca.

The elections must be held by the end of January for a transitional parliament which will, in turn, pick a new government and oversee the adoption of a constitution, according to the American's timetable for the establishment of representative government.

Diplomatic and military sources say that they expect a determined effort by Islamist groups to smuggle in fighters among the worshippers, with little chance of detecting them. The sheer number of pilgrims will, they say, create a logistical nightmare beside a political campaign in which 120 parties are taking part.

One officer said that those planning the transitional process appeared not to have taken the Muslim calendar into consideration.

The pilgrims will be in Iraq while mosques are being raided by US and Iraqi troops, and with the memory of the bloody battle for Fallujah still fresh in people's minds. A number of Muslim clerics have played leading parts in opposing the US-led occupation forces.

The independent Iraqi electoral commission said that even areas beset by violence will participate in the elections. The commission spokesman Farid Ayar said: "No Iraqi province will be excluded because the law considers Iraq as one constituency and therefore it is not legal to exclude any province."

Many of the voter registration centres are shut because of attacks, and insurgent groups have threatened a wave of attacks to disrupt the election. Both the US and Britain have said they will be sending extra troops to Iraq in anticipation of an increase in violence.

Sunni Arab leaders, including some in Iyad Allawi's interim government, have called for the election to be postponed until the security situation stabilises, and there have been calls for the Sunni population to boycott the polls.

However, leaders of the Shia community, which encompasses a majority of the population, are keen for the elections to be held, and Ayatollah Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader, has urged his co-religionists to take an active part in the polls.

Under the rules, the electorate will vote for a 275-member Transitional National Assembly. Political parties will submit a list of candidates and every third name has to be a woman's.

Parties with affiliations to militias are ineligible to take part, as are former senior members of the Baath party.