The politically explosive issue of whether to delay elections is creating deep rifts in Iraq's already fractured political landscape, with Shiite religious authorities determined to hold them on time and a growing body of mainly Sunni leaders calling for the Jan. 30 balloting to be put off for up to six months.
Both sides dug in over the weekend as the country's prime minister and the seven-member elections commission insisted that elections will go forward as planned.
Iraq's interim government and its Independent Electoral Commission are stuck in the middle, faced with two potentially divisive outcomes: Delaying elections would anger the country's Shiite majority and risk losing already shaky public confidence in the interim government. But if elections go ahead as scheduled, and if voter turnout is low, the elections could be widely viewed as illegitimate.
"The disadvantage for them is that they will not have the legitimacy they are looking for. And that will give the opposition - resistance or nonresistance - the right to doubt these elections," said Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
Over the past several months, Sunni clerics loosely aligned with Iraq's militant insurgency have called on Sunnis to boycott the elections. On Friday, Sunni political parties upped the ante by issuing a specific proposal, signed by 17 Arab and Kurdish parties, for a six-month extension. The statement, drawn up at the house of respected Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, alluded to both safety and organization as reasons for the delay.
Shiite clergy flatly rejected the call for delays. "These parties are acting like a student who wants to delay the exam as it gets closer to exam time," said Sheikh Fatih Kashif-al-Ghitta, a Shiite cleric from a prominent Najaf political family, speaking on the Al Jazeera Arabic satellite channel.
Others hinted that a delay might force Shiite religious authorities, who have so far avoided open conflict, to switch tactics. "If the elections are not held on time, we will be forced to reevaluate our policies," said Abdulaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,a powerful Shiite political party. "We will look for other avenues."
On Saturday, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi rebuffed the request for a delay, pointing out that Jan. 30 is the deadline specified under the country's transitional law and United Nations Security Council resolutions. "The Prime Minister understands the concern of these groups, but is equally aware of the determination of others to see elections held on time," said government spokesman Thaer Naqib.
Mr. Allawi promised to reach out to moderate Sunni parties, but denied that a delay would buy time to talk them out of the boycott. "He does not believe that a delay will necessarily make such broad participation any easier to achieve," said Mr. Naqib.
That same day, the electoral commission flatly rejected the call to delay. "This date is settled, and no changes to it are being considered," said a blunt, short statement issued by the election commission. "Preparation work is under way around the country."
But Iraq's current climate of violence has made planning for wide participation in elections extremely difficult. With elections only two months away, the commission has the monumental task of staffing 9,000 polling places around the country and training roughly 40,000 Iraqis, few of whom have had any experience with elections.
"I just can't see how we can hold these elections," said a consultant working with election planners. "We need at least 40,000 people - nine thousand polling stations, and four to five people per station. And I don't see that happening. The election commission just doesn't have the manpower."
Once the poll workers are hired, the commission will have an extremely short time frame to train them to follow its rules - many of which, thanks to Iraq's daily violence and rapidly shifting political situation, have yet to be decided.
"It's very difficult to train them, because most of the rules are not on the ground yet," said the consultant, who asked not to be identified. "For example, what happens if someone from Fallujah comes to Baghdad? Are they able to vote, even if they're not registered there? Will ration cards be enough to vote, or will they require Iraqi identification and passport? What are the ground rules - Can the police be inside the polling stations? There are so many things that are unknown."
It's not just the short time frame that will make elections difficult to pull off. The tensions have made traditional poll-monitoring techniques potentially dangerous. For example, elections in post-conflict countries like Afghanistan often use ink to mark voters' hands and prevent double voting. In Iraq, where many voters fear election-day violence, voters might stay away for fear of being caught with ink on their hands.
Election commission members could not be reached for comment, but commission president Hussain Hindawi recently addressed some of these questions. "Every citizen will have just one center where he is on a voter roll, so he will not be allowed to vote twice," he told a UN publication. "In addition, indelible ink will be sprayed on voters' fingers to show they have voted. They would have to cut off a finger to get rid of the ink."
Poll workers and monitors, many of whom have already received death threats from militants for participating in the electoral process, also have to worry about their own safety.
"In an ideal election monitoring situation, you'd have people with T-shirts on that say the name of the organization," said Marc Lemieux, an election training coordinator who has worked on elections in Haiti, Cambodia, Bosnia, and other postconflict countries. "That way, voters know who to approach with complaints about irregularities. We probably won't be able to do that here."
Some fear that the threat of violence on election day might keep poll workers, not just voters, away from polling stations. "What happens if the poll workers don't go to the polling station in the morning - the first five voters who come to the polls have to stay all day?" said the consultant. "That's how it is in some countries - so no one goes very early to vote, or they get a job!"
But Mr. Lemieux thinks elections will go forward, pointing out that delaying them won't necessarily make conditions safer. "There was the same sense of fear in Cambodia and Afghanistan, the same urge to postpone elections," he said. "People can't help thinking that someday you'll have peace, you'll have security. But how long are you going to wait? Until I can walk down the streets of Fallujah?"