This is a nation under siege, but these elections offer the best hope of a more secure future

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The Independent Online

This will be the most important week for the people of Iraq since American tanks rolled into Baghdad in April, two years ago. On Sunday, they will be asked to go to the polls to decide who will control the fate of their country. Iraq's first democratic elections should have been an occasion for great celebration and hope, but few are optimistic about the poll. And no one is in the mood to celebrate. Iraqis fear that these elections will mark the beginning, not the end of their problems.

This will be the most important week for the people of Iraq since American tanks rolled into Baghdad in April, two years ago. On Sunday, they will be asked to go to the polls to decide who will control the fate of their country. Iraq's first democratic elections should have been an occasion for great celebration and hope, but few are optimistic about the poll. And no one is in the mood to celebrate. Iraqis fear that these elections will mark the beginning, not the end of their problems.

A tape recording of the voice of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the reputed leader of the insurgency, emerged yesterday. In it, he declared a "fierce war on this evil principle of democracy", and warned of his intention to target Iraqis taking part in Sunday's elections. This has ensured that the election will be shrouded in fear, for it is impossible to underestimate the power of the insurgency to intimidate Iraqis into not casting their votes. Events over the past year have confirmed its grim effectiveness in cowing the local population and terrorising the occupying forces. On average, 20 Iraqis have been killed every day in car bombings since the invasion. Thousands have been injured. The number of US troops killed exceeded 1,000 some time ago, and 75 British soldiers have lost their lives.

The reach of the insurgents ramps up the level of fear. Earlier this month, the governor of Baghdad was assassinated, despite being surrounded by six guards. The insurgency draws its support mainly from Iraq's minority Sunni community, but it is by no means a small operation; indeed, the head of Iraqi intelligence estimates the number of insurgents exceeds the total number of foreign troops.

A year ago, much hope was placed in the formation of Iraqi security forces. Soldiers and policemen trained by the American military and placed under the control of the Iraqi interim government were expected to re-establish security long before these elections came around. But these security forces have died in their hundreds, brutally targeted by gunmen and suicide bombers. Last week, the new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, argued that the number of trained and reliable Iraqi soldiers is above 100,000. But the Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi admitted to the BBC yesterday that the number is 70,000 at most - and many observers believe the true figure is far below this. One thing is clear: the struggle to restore stability to Iraq is going badly.

A state of emergency exists in Iraq and curfews are to be extended before Sunday's poll. Baghdad's airport will be closed for two days. The movement of pedestrians and cars close to polling stations will be restricted, and non-official cars will be prevented from travelling between Iraq's 18 provinces. In many areas, election staff will keep the location of polling stations secret until the last minute. If this is democracy, it is democracy under siege. And even with all these measures, it is uncertain how many of Iraq's 14 million eligible voters will cast their ballots, with the Sunni areas of Iraq expected to boycott the poll. The legitimacy of the National Assembly that will be formed after these elections hangs by a thin thread.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq, has declared to his followers that voting is a "religious duty" and given his tacit support to the United Iraqi Alliance. For this reason, the Shia of Iraq are likely to vote, despite the terrible dangers they will face. To the Shia, these elections represent a chance to gain power, after decades of repression under Saddam. It is not an opportunity they intend to squander. The targeting by the insurgency in recent weeks of Shia areas shows that the opponents of the elections also recognise this.

Iraq's best hope is that these elections are completed with the minimum of casualties and with as large a turnout as possible. After Sunday, we will have a better idea of whether the new government will have the legitimacy to restore stability. It will also be clearer whether the people of Iraq can finally begin to hope for a less bloody future.

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