WASHINGTON - Amid threats of heavy bloodshed, Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein elections a month from now are shaping up as a tense and dangerous spectacle that could emphasize, rather than bridge, the nation's ethnic and sectarian divisions.
The vote is widely expected to grant Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims - long deprived of power by Sunni rulers - a majority in a new national assembly that is to form a provisional government and draft a permanent constitution.
But with a major Sunni party refusing to participate, assassinations of election workers and key Sunni enclaves likely to be too dangerous for many to vote, even senior U.S. officials aren't sure the election and constitution-writing process will be seen as legitimate.
Top U.S. officials have said for weeks that violence would increase as Iraq's election nears, and events of the past few days have borne out that prediction. On Tuesday, insurgents lured police into a booby-trapped house in Baghdad and set off nearly a ton of explosives, killing 29 people and leveling nearby homes.
On Wednesday, insurgents in the northern city of Mosul attacked an American military post. In the ensuing battle, a U.S. soldier and some 25 insurgents were killed. Yesterday, the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel reported that all 700 employees of the electoral commission in Mosul had walked off their jobs after being threatened.
"There are no starry-eyed dreamers around here about this being an election that will be without difficulties," said a Bush administration official involved in Iraq policy, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The question is, will the results reflect broadly the desires and needs of the Iraqi people?"
This sober view is a stark contrast from optimism that reigned before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion among fervent advocates of regime change in Iraq.
Whether the election should be held on schedule is a subject of debate inside and outside Iraq, though the United States is firmly committed to the Jan. 30 date, which is enshrined in a United Nations resolution and Iraq's temporary constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law.
This week, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Sumaidaie, called for a postponement of two to three weeks to allow for better preparations, particularly in the last-minute arrangements for the many Iraqis outside the country to vote. Others have called for a longer delay. U.S. officials say the debate is likely to continue at a meeting Jan. 6 of foreign ministers from neighboring countries, though the Jordanians, who will play host for the gathering in Amman, have promised not to press for a postponement.
"As is the case in Iraq since March 1991, there are no good options, only bad and worse," says Amatzia Baram, a longtime Iraq specialist at the University of Haifa, in Israel.
"Elections in January is a bad option because it will certainly deepen, or at least keep open as is, the gulf between Shiites and Kurds on the one hand, and Sunni-Arabs on the other," Baram said in an e-mail.
Postponement, he added, "will be seen by most Iraqis as victory for the insurgents, and it will encourage them to step up terrorism so as to terrorize the supporters of the new system and push the coalition forces out of the country."
An atmosphere of intimidation is likely to hang over the election in some areas, with Iraqis not only fearing attack during the vote but "having their throat cut the next day," as a senior administration official put it.
"Certainly we should expect a lot of violence, although it may not be evenly spread," said Amy Hawthorne, an independent specialist in democratic development.
For the past two months, the U.S. military and allied Iraqi forces have engaged in a fierce campaign to stabilize areas that have become strongholds of the Iraqi insurgency. On Jan. 30, they hope to mobilize 100,000 members of Iraq's security forces to protect voters and polling places.
Still, a senior administration official this week listed several areas, including western Baghdad and Anbar province, where voting is likely to be sparse.
"The overwhelming problem of Sunni participation is security," one official said.
Whether Iraqi Sunnis and the Arab world view the election as legitimate will depend heavily, U.S. officials say, on outreach efforts now under way by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar to encourage Sunnis to participate in the election with promises of a role in the next government.
This week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell encouraged leaders of Iraq's neighboring Arab states, which are Sunni-dominated, to do the same, and said the elected legislature "would certainly have to take into account the ethnic mix of the country and find a way to make sure that all segments of the country believe that they are playing a proper role in the government."
But Powell's words underscored what some analysts see as a worrying trend: Rather than focusing on issues facing the country, the election is likely to be driven by the bid for power among ethnic and religious groups.
"The fact of the matter is, with this exercise we're much more likely to see identity politics than issue politics, which means Kurds will vote as a bloc, a lot of the Shia will vote as a bloc, a lot of those Sunnis who participate will vote for Sunni candidates," the senior official said.
Phebe Marr, a historian and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said she worries that the election will push Iraq further toward a Lebanese pattern, in which power and key government offices are divided among religious groups.
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Iraq is already showing signs of degenerating into a free-for-all. "I don't think [the election] will decrease the likelihood of civil war."
U.S. officials, however, point to the aftermath of the election as a way of preventing a hardening of religious and ethnic blocs among Iraqis.
In the post-election jockeying for jobs and influence in drafting the constitution, they say, the political blocs that formed during the campaign are likely to fracture, opening the way for competition among tribal, secular, religious, urban and rural groups.
With the prospect that relatively few international observers will be in the country watching the vote, they say the key test of the election's legitimacy will be decided by Iraqis.
"The Iraqi observers themselves are going to be key in convincing Iraqis that the damn thing is legitimate," a Bush administration official said.