The elections will be far from perfect, but any delay would be another betrayal of the Iraqis

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The assassination of the governor of Baghdad, killed with six of his guards yesterday, was a graphic demonstration of the inability of the occupying forces to protect even their own at even the most crucial of times. There could hardly have been a worse way to usher in a year that should begin and end with elections.

The assassination of the governor of Baghdad, killed with six of his guards yesterday, was a graphic demonstration of the inability of the occupying forces to protect even their own at even the most crucial of times. There could hardly have been a worse way to usher in a year that should begin and end with elections.

The unpalatable truth is that, in the 10 days that the world's attention has been fixed on the disaster zones of Asia, the already perilous situation in Iraq has taken a sharp turn in the direction of anarchy. An average of 20 Iraqis a day, many of them newly trained police and security forces, have perished in bombings. Many more have been injured. Despite confining as many of its troops as possible to fortified camps, the US is again losing soldiers at the rate of several a day. The head of Iraq's intelligence service now estimates that the number of insurgents exceeds the total of foreign troops.

US and British officials have long predicted that the months before the elections to a new legislative body would be especially dangerous. Even they, however, seem to have been taken aback by the persistence of the attacks and the speed with which security has worsened. The Foreign Office described yesterday's assassination as a sign of the increasing desperation of the insurgents trying to prevent the elections. Desperation is not a word officials use when they are confident of the outcome.

With every turn for the worse, the number of Iraqis arguing for a postponement of the 30 January election has grown. Following yesterday's killing, the interim President, Ghazi al-Yawar, became the latest and most senior Iraqi to propose a "review" of the polling date. He called on the UN to consider whether, in current conditions, voting was possible. Although the decision belongs to the Iraqi electoral commission, he said he was appealing to the UN because otherwise voters might conclude that the interim leadership was simply trying to cling to power.

Among others calling for a postponement are the elder statesman, Adnan Pachachi, and Sunni Arab clerics in the interim government, who fear a low Sunni turnout and consequent under-representation that could spawn further violence. Iraq's ambassador to the UN has suggested a delay of two or three weeks in the hope, probably vain, that security could improve. A leading Sunni party, however, recently announced that it was boycotting the elections because it feared for the safety of its candidates and voters. It has stopped campaigning.

Above all the arguments about the practicality of voting amid such instability, however, hovers another fear, especially among Sunnis. This is that the election will simply be used by the occupying forces to legitimise their presence in the long term and entrench the Shia majority as Iraq's new rulers. Such a result would hardly stem the insurgency and could well have the opposite effect.

So far, the Iraqi electoral commission has resisted calls for a postponement. So have representatives of the Shia majority, including - most adamantly - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The US and British also insist there be no delay. And while there are good reasons why many might suspect their motives, they are right, It is imperative that the timetable be kept. The 30 January elections may be far from perfect, but the consequences of a delay would be infinitely more risky than trying to ensure that, one way or another, they take place.

The US and the British owe it to the Iraqis to honour one of the few promises they have not yet broken: the promise of elections. With the security situation deteriorating so fast, any delay will only make elections less likely. One suggestion - that a number of seats could be left vacant for Sunni provinces to fill later - is an option that could be broached. But there can be no other concessions. The elections must be held. Without them, Iraq's interim government stands to lose even the shreds of legitimacy it had. Without them, the US and British adventure will lose the only justification that might have partly redeemed it.

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