With the candidates' lists closed and Iraq seemingly set on an irreversible course toward elections on Jan. 30, a senior Western official with decades of Middle East experience cast about last Friday for the kind of optimistic forecast that the US and its allies have offered at every important juncture in 20 turbulent months since the toppling of former president Saddam Hussein.
The election, the official said, was the most ambitious democratic exercise ever attempted in an Arab country, one in which 14 million eligible Iraqis will choose from more than 7,700 candidates seeking seats in a provisional national assembly, 18 provincial councils and a regional Kurdish parliament. He invited comparisons with a clumsily rigged referendum two years ago, when Saddam declared himself re-elected president with 100 percent of his countrymen's 12 million votes.
Later, the official, guarded by the anonymity commonly demanded when reporters are briefed in the Green Zone command compound, slipped, momentarily, into a more candid assessment of the prospects for conducting a successful vote in a country beset by an increasingly brutal war and deep sectarian, religious and regional rivalries. The election, he said, was a "jungle of ambiguity" where hopes ride on a sea of uncertainties, not the least of them the degree of violence the voting will provoke.
Many of those most closely involved in organizing the elections, including Iraqis, Americans and officials in a small UN election assistance team, agree that the elections amount to a high-stakes gamble, one that could end the series of bitter reverses that have followed last year's invasion, but which could just as easily spiral into chaos with widespread insurgent attacks on candidates and polling stations, or end in a lopsided victory by Iranian-backed Shiite religious groups that the ethnic and religious minorities refuse to accept.
In the first 48 hours since the deadline for candidates to register last Wednesday, there has been little new evidence to support a particular outcome. The only rally so far was held on Friday at a Baghdad sports stadium, where 2,000 Communist Party supporters, their ranks decimated under Saddam, met to chant slogans that would have provoked executions before his downfall.
Otherwise, the only sign of an impending election in the capital has been giant posters showing the country's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and his recent decree declaring it a religious duty for all Shiites to vote.
One uncertainty is how much of a campaign there will be, at least in terms of normal, Western-style rallies and meet-the-voters politicking. Although the Communists made a bold start on Friday, other groups have made no secret of their concern not to expose their candidates to the bombs, ambushes and assassinations that have been the insurgents' stock-in-trade. When interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi began his campaign last Wednesday with an appearance with members of his slate at a Baghdad sports club, the Americans who form the core of his security team judged the risks so great that they ordered a large area of central Baghdad closed to traffic for several hours.
The empty streets at the height of the working day marked at least a symbolic success for the Sunni insurgents who have given notice of their intention to disrupt the polls. Just as much, they were a reminder of the residual power, even in an American prison near Baghdad airport, of Saddam, who US officials believe laid the groundwork for the insurgency before the invasion in March last year, by ordering the preparation of underground cells, the stashing of large amounts of money and the stocking of extensive weapons caches.