Iraq's coming election offers voters a dizzying array of choices. Communists, Islamists, monarchists, and neo-Baathists are lining up for a slice of power in the new government.
While they have intensely different views on what sort of state Iraq should be, there is one thing on which almost all of them agree: The threat of being killed for participating in the political process is likely to rise in the days and weeks ahead.
That threat forces candidates to campaign clandestinely, leaving most Iraqis in the dark about the differences between political platforms. And the prospect of attacks on polling centers will probably depress voter turnout. Those factors could undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process, particularly in the eyes of the Sunni Arab minority who ruled Iraq until the US invasion and have the most to lose in elections Jan. 30.
"Why should I vote?" asks Ahmed Mohammed, a Sunni from Anbar Province, arguably Iraq's most violent. "I don't know most of the candidates and the ones I do know about seem to be working for the Americans. I don't see anyone who's going to make our lives better."
To be sure, many Iraqis are eager to vote, particularly the majority Arab Shiites who expect the election to be their path to power for the first time in Iraq's history. Not surprisingly, this has put their candidates directly in the line of fire.
"I hate the fact that it looks as if I'll be driven out of my country again,'' says Ghassan Atiyyah, who lived in exile until the fall of Saddam Hussein and who leads the National Independent Party, which is fielding 60 candidates in the election.
"You see all those policemen out there,'' he says, gesturing to the window. "They won't be able to do anything if the resistance decides to come for me."
His fear seems to be confirmed by the ease with which insurgents have been killing Iraqi security forces.
Monday, at least 17 Iraqi police and National Guards, charged with protecting the Jan. 30 election, were killed in two separate incidents. At least six election officials have been killed since December.
Last week, two aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who helped create the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite electoral list that is expected to dominate the election, were assassinated south of Baghdad. Monday, one man was wounded and another killed by a rival political group while putting up posters for the electoral slate of appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
On Sunday, Salama al-Khafaji, a candidate on the UIA list, survived an assassination attempt in central Baghdad. A week ago, Iraqi Communist Party leader Hadi Saleh was found strangled in his Baghdad home. His hands were bound behind his back and he had been tortured. His files, with information about many of the party's members, were taken.
Fear of assassination has already persuaded most of Iraq's major electoral lists to refrain from releasing all the names of their candidates - a condition that complicates the claim that Iraq is holding a truly free democratic election.
Candidates and voters here worry about what reprisals the 275 election winners - and the many more losers - may face after the vote.
"We are heading for a disaster whether we like it or not,'' says Mr. Attiya, a one-time adviser to the US before the invasion of Iraq.
He strongly advocated early elections but now says nearly two years of occupation have left Iraq's diverse population too polarized and divided for the experiment to be a success.
"We could have Shiite hegemony, which will be bad because of how the Sunnis react. And if they don't win, the Shiites could rise up, which would be worse," he says. Attiya is going out of the country for a conference this week, and may decide to vote at a polling place in Europe if the violence gets much worse.
Others are still hopeful about the process, warts and all. "We're not naive: We know this is going to be very difficult,'' says Adan al-Jenabi, the campaign manager for Mr. Allawi, whose list is expected to be among the strongest of the secular groups in the election.
"Yes, we have occupation, there will be accusations of vote rigging, and probably violence,'' says Mr. Jenabi, who's also a member of Allawi's Cabinet. "But the government we will have afterward will be more legitimate than the one I belong to."
One of the few parties in the election that has disclosed all of the names on its list is the Constitutional Monarchy Movement of Sherif Ali. Mr. Ali is the claimant to Iraq's Hashemite throne, the Sunni monarchy created by the British in 1921 - the last time a foreign power shepherded a new government into existence in Iraq.
The monarchy was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1958 that left most of its members dead, but Prince Ali, who's lived in exile for almost his whole life, says Iraqis are nostalgic for that era and he's been able to campaign with greater ease than many other parties.
"We've always kept ourselves apart from the occupation, and the appointed government, which has clearly failed," he says.
Nevertheless, a billboard of a smiling Prince Ali delivering a royal wave and promoting his party in Baghdad's heavily Sunni Adhamiya district didn't last long. Angry locals burned it to the ground after just one day.