Setting a date for Iraq's elections is a gamble, but our options are running out

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In other circumstances, the formal announcement of a date for elections in Iraq before the end of January would have been a highly positive development. It would have shown that the interim Iraqi authorities, backed by the occupying powers, judged Iraq ready to start the process towards democratic government, and were confident the promised timetable could be kept. Regrettably, this is not how yesterday's announcement came across. Given the situation in Iraq today, the naming of the day appears a last, desperate throw of the dice, in the hope of staving off advancing chaos.

In other circumstances, the formal announcement of a date for elections in Iraq before the end of January would have been a highly positive development. It would have shown that the interim Iraqi authorities, backed by the occupying powers, judged Iraq ready to start the process towards democratic government, and were confident the promised timetable could be kept. Regrettably, this is not how yesterday's announcement came across. Given the situation in Iraq today, the naming of the day appears a last, desperate throw of the dice, in the hope of staving off advancing chaos.

The desirability of elections - not, in the first instance, for a parliament, but for a constituent assembly entrusted with producing a constitution - is not at issue. It is a rare point on which almost everyone outside and inside Iraq can concur. Supporters of the war say elections are what the military intervention was mostly about. Opponents believe that elections are one way, perhaps the only way, in which something can be salvaged from an adventure that was ill-conceived and mismanaged - and should have been held much earlier. For the interim government in Iraq and for many of the Shia majority, elections cannot be held soon enough. They have been the central demand voiced by the moderate Shia leader, Ayatollah Sistani, since the occupation began.

Now, however, 18 months after the war was declared officially over, timely elections do not represent one option among several. The situation has reached the point where they seem to offer the only prospect of salving the vast wound that is Iraq. And, judging by statements from the top brass of the US and British military over the weekend, that prospect may be more remote than ever.

The deputy head of US Central Command in Iraq said that the army might decide to send more troops to Iraq before the elections. There could be an increase of "several thousand", depending on the final outcome of the offensive in Fallujah where, he conceded, rebels were still holding out in some parts of the city. Meanwhile in London, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, told The Independent that more British troops could be moved out of the southern area of command if this was judged necessary. He also made clear that British troops might be needed in Iraq beyond the end of 2005. Neither possibility speaks of high-level confidence that Iraq will be either peaceful or on a fast track to representative government by spring of next year.

Last week, even as the US military said that its troops were engaged in the last mopping up operations in Fallujah, rebellions erupted in half a dozen other places, including Iraq's third largest city, Mosul. Attacks also multiplied in parts of Baghdad. Iraq is increasingly in a Catch-22 situation: the occupation has triggered the insurgency, but it is unlikely to end before elections can be held, and the insurgency risks making it impossible to hold credible elections nationwide.

The announcement of the election date seems intended to convey a glimmer of hope at a time when hope looks especially scarce. It is surely no coincidence that it came shortly after US forces declared victory in Fallujah - a city whose rebellion supposedly the main obstacle to the holding of elections. Nor that it came hard on the heels of open speculation among US and Iraqi officials that the elections might have to be postponed because of deteriorating security.

To press ahead with election preparations amid widespread turmoil is a gamble worth making. Any delay would only add to the already severe disillusionment of the peaceful majority of Iraqis. It could foster the belief that power will eventually be won by force, not by the ballot box, and greatly augment the ranks of insurgents. There is, of course, a risk that, come January, only partial elections will be possible and that procedures and participation will be compromised. But this is a lesser risk by far than the despair that would undoubtedly set in if elections were indefinitely delayed.

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