BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 29 - For Ghassan al-Atiyyah, the journey to Sunday's elections has been long and painful, sustained by the hope that Iraq would one day embrace the democratic principles that drove him into 20 years of exile.
Last month, back in Iraq from London at the age of 65, he founded a political party that drew together secular Shiites like himself and moderate Sunnis, as well as Christians, Kurds and others united by the bond of civic ideals. Along with 110 other individuals, parties and alliances, the group set out to compete for seats in the 275-member provisional assembly that will be elected in the vote.
It will be Iraq's first multiparty election since 1954, four years before King Faisal II was assassinated in the military coup that led to the rise of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein, who had Mr. Atiyyah condemned to death in absentia. But Mr. Atiyyah is hoping, now, that the voters will reject him.
"I don't want to have on my hands the blood of any candidate or voter," he said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan. On the eve of the election, he was heading to Washington to tell American officials they must involve other powers, including neighboring Arab states, in shaping Iraq's future. "I would like to believe that we could still somehow reclaim the Iraq we lost in the 1950's, but holding elections in these conditions will be a calamity," he said. "They will set a course on which we can easily drift into civil war."
For every moderate like Mr. Atiyyah who has turned against the elections, there is another who spoke to reporters with bursting enthusiasm at the prospect of Iraqis at last having the chance to choose their own leaders. One of them, Salama al-Khafaji, a 46-year-old Shiite dentist, has survived three assassination attempts, including one last year in which insurgents killed her 20-year-old son and a bodyguard.
"We have principles, we believe in democracy and human rights," she said. "If I die, it is better to have died for something than to have died for nothing." As she spoke, she struggled into a bulletproof vest and a traditional black cloak to return to Baghdad's streets for a last round of campaigning.
Nearly 22 months after American troops captured Baghdad, lighting a fire of enthusiasm for the freedoms Iraqis had craved so long, it is a measure of how much has gone wrong that Iraqis committed to Western-style democratic ideals can differ so sharply over the best way to secure them. Much of the problem is that the elections are being held under the dominion of the United States.
Many Iraqis, interviews in recent months have shown, do not accept that fundamental choices about the shape of their future political system should be made by a foreign power, particularly one they regard as a harbinger of secular, materialistic values far removed from the Muslim world's.
But questions over the election go far beyond the American stewardship, to issues that touch on whether it was ever wise or realistic to think that Jeffersonian-style democracy, with its elaborate checks on power and guarantees for minority rights, could be implanted, at least so rapidly, in a country and a region that has little experience with anything but winner-take-all politics.
Compounding those objections, the elections are being held in the grip of a paralyzing fear that many Iraqis see as inconsistent with a free vote. A savage insurgency, and the harsh measures America's 150,000 troops have taken in response, have angered and terrified Iraqis, who now face election conditions that have made an obstacle course of the process, at every stage.
Half a dozen candidates have been assassinated. As a result, the names of all others have not been made public; they were available in the last days of the campaign on Web sites inaccessible to most Iraqis, few of whom own computers. Even 12 hours before the polls were scheduled to open, the location of most of the 5,300 polling stations in the country remained secret, with officials saying that signs directing voters to them would be pasted on walls overnight. Even to get to the polls on Sunday, the 14 million eligible voters will have to walk; all but officially approved vehicle traffic has been banned to deter insurgent attacks, especially car bombings. Insurgents have warned that they will kill anybody approaching within 500 yards of a polling station.
Adding to the frustrations, many Iraqis have complained that there was so little campaigning that they knew little, if anything, about party policies, or even if the parties had any, beyond the personalities of their leaders. An exception came in a series of live television debates among prominent politicians, including Sunni and Shiite clerics, that touched on core issues, including the American military presence, the role of religion in politics, and the allegations of Iranian influence over Shiite religious groups. But in many homes, perhaps most, people were unable to watch because the supply of electricity in many towns and cities averages four hours or less a day.
Questions About Democracy
Iraq's receptivity to democracy was questioned before the invasion of March 2003, when many American Middle East experts warned that Iraq, released from the stifling grip of Mr. Hussein, was a tinderhouse of competing tribal, ethnic and religious passions.
But many Iraqis, especially those who remember the period of the monarchy, bridle at the suggestion that the country is somehow too brute, or immature, to serve as a laboratory for American-style democracy in the Middle East. They recall that under King Faisal, Iraq had an elected parliament, with opposition parties, independent newspapers and a justice system that was more than a pliant tool of the government, even if the system, including indirect elections to many of the parliamentary seats, was carefully constructed to make sure that the king could always have his way on major issues.
"I won't say we had a democracy, but we had a system that was quite tolerant," said Adnan Pachachi, an 81-year-old moderate Sunni leader who heads his own list of candidates in the elections. Mr. Pachachi, an Iraqi foreign minister in the last years before the Baathists took power in 1968, is one of the Iraqi politicians most trusted by the Americans here. Although he pushed for the elections to be delayed to allow more time for attempts to lure Sunni insurgents into negotiations, he sees the vote on Sunday as a major step forward.
"You've got to start somewhere," he said in an interview in his heavily guarded home in the Mansour district of west Baghdad. "Establishing a democratic system is a learning process, with its ups and downs, but I think the Iraqi people will gradually get used to it as it develops. Look, the Americans helped to establish democracies in Japan and Germany and South Korea, where there was no strong foundation for it, so why not here? We have a fairly sophisticated population, and they have lived under Saddam Hussein, so they have a very strong understanding of what happens when democracy is absent."
Still, even among senior American officials here, there is an edge of doubt. One, who arrived here as sovereignty was being transferred in June, referred to the Americans who oversaw the 15 months of formal occupation as "the illusionists," and cites as an example the $750 million of American money that the occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer III, set aside to finance a democracy training program, as well as elections. In one case, the money has financed a Muslim cleric who runs a "democracy center" in Hilla, a city south of Baghdad where Americans cannot move without heavy armor.
The cleric, Sayed Farqad al-Qiswini, has remained a fixture on American Embassy helicopter trips for reporters covering the elections, discoursing with enthusiasm about the importance of separation of powers, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, concepts that have been alien, or at least malleable, under the rulers Iraqis have known for centuries. But when a reporter asked him during the Bremer period about his commitment to democratic values, he laughed and replied: "You know, we Iraqis are all chameleons. We learned to be like that from Saddam Hussein."
In dozens of interviews across Baghdad for this article, about as many Iraqis said they would vote as those who said they wouldn't. Among those who said they would, there was appreciation, though muted, for the role the United States has played in holding the elections; among those who said they wouldn't, a cross-section of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, there was pervasive bitterness about the American occupation.
Some even said the only candidate they wanted was not available: Saddam Hussein. "Don't tell me this election has anything to do with democracy," said Isam Jalal, a 57-year-old Sunni who is a bulk trader in wood and steel. "The Americans are playing with us. It was Saddam Hussein who tried to make this into a modern country, but that didn't suit the United States and Britain, or Israel, or even some of our brother Arab countries. If you want my vote, give me Saddam, or a strongman who can rule like he did."
Quickly, many of those interviewed shifted to talking about days and nights without water and electricity, about hours and sometimes days waiting at gas stations for fuel, and, above all, about the violence and crime since Mr. Hussein's iron grip on the country was released, all blamed on the United States. Among people chosen at random on the streets, wariness toward the elections was entangled with complaints about American helicopters clattering low above rooftops at night, Humvee-borne troops bursting into neighborhood homes after midnight and carrying people away, and relatives and friends being killed and wounded in crossfire.
But amid the clamor, one consistent feature was the issue of whether America's political ideals could be matched with Iraq's social, cultural and religious traditions. On that, too, there was discord. Abu Mustafa, a 37-year-old Sunni auto parts salesman, said what Iraq needed was "a strongman ruling according to our traditions," meaning Muslim values and Iraqi culture, not an American-style democratic free-for all. "Islam has more values than all the values that are shouted in Western countries," he said.
But Abu Hussein, a 47-year-old Shiite who owns a bookshop, said he welcomed the American role. "They promised to introduce democracy in Iraq, and I hope they can achieve it," he said. He said he would vote, despite the insurgent threats, and trusted that one result would be a broad-based coalition reflecting all Iraq's ethnic and religious communities. "These values are not American, they are universal," he said. "They should be applied in all Arab countries. I am sure the elections will be a step forward for Iraq, and for all Iraqis."
Still, even top officials at the American Embassy, Iraq's behind-the-scenes powerhouse since the country regained formal sovereignty in June, acknowledge the problem of holding an election so closely identified with the United States, one reason why American troops will be carefully deployed "over the horizon" for the voting, leaving security near the polls to Iraqi security forces.
"We are both a stabilizing factor and a provocative factor at the same time," said one American official with long experience in the Middle East. "If you had foreign troops occupying your country, speaking a language you don't understand, I think it would be a significant source of irritation."
Intimidation and Turnout
Turnout will be one way to judge whether holding the elections now was wise. A key question is how many people will vote in the country's heartland, where a Sunni majority of about 20 percent is concentrated and a widespread Sunni boycott is expected. Senior coalition officials, privately more worried than their public statements have suggested, are bracing for a disappointing, even embarrassing, turnout outside the heavily Shiite and Kurdish population centers.
Increasingly, as the elections neared, officials couched their forecasts in terms that appeared intended to discount a widespread stay-away. One official emphasized the extent of intimidation by the insurgents, especially by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Islamic militant who has been blamed for many of the most brutal insurgent attacks, including the killing this week of a candidate running as an ally of Ayad Allawi, the American-backed interim prime minister. The candidate was shown in an Internet video being shot after condemning Iraq's "American occupiers."
In a separate audiotape last week, Mr. Zarqawi declared an "all-out war" against democracy itself, which he described as an infidel culture that supplanted the rule of God with that of man. To an official briefing American reporters, threats like those, not a basic alienation from the idea of democracy, have been the biggest impediment. "It's not that people have concluded, 'The democratic system has nothing for me,' " he said. "An election is a very easy thing to intimidate people against."
Then, as if anticipating a poor turnout, he offered a bottom line: "The election is a good thing in and of itself. We believe in voting. We have tried other ways in the Middle East, and all of them have turned out to be pretty bad."
Many moderate Iraqis believe that the Americans' crucial mistake in charting Iraq's course back to full independence under a popularly elected government was the refusal to postpone the elections. In the decision to press ahead with the voting on Jan. 30, and to hold them on a single day, instead of the staggered, region-by-region voting stretching over two or three weeks that might have allowed United States and Iraqi forces to concentrate troops more effectively in each voting district, the Americans found powerful allies. First among these was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, who pressed for early elections in the first days after the overthrow of Mr. Hussein, seeing them as the surest way for the country's Shiite majority to wrest power from the Sunni minority.
Ayatollah Sistani and the broad Shiite political coalition that was formed under his patronage, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, strongly opposed a delay, and warned that Shiite restiveness could explode into violence, confronting American troops and the fledgling Iraqi security forces they have trained with a two-front war, against Sunni and Shiite extremists.
Criticism of the U.S.
But Mr. Atiyyah, the former exile and a Shiite, sees the decision as a product of another mistake he believes the Americans have made here, overestimating the power of Shiite clerics, and undervaluing the country's strong secular traditions, entrenched under Mr. Hussein. If the Americans had agreed to the delay that was urged on them by a wide array of political parties that had signed up for the vote, including the Iraqi National Accord, the political vehicle of Dr. Allawi, he said, they would have made time for Dr. Allawi and other mainstream political leaders to reach out for an accommodation with ex-Baathists and Sunni tribal leaders who back the insurgency.
That proposition was put directly to Mr. Bush in a telephone call by Dr. Allawi in mid-January, according to Dr. Allawi's aides, but Mr. Bush was adamant. To Mr. Atiyyah, who spent his exile writing a newsletter cataloguing Mr. Hussein's human rights abuses, the decision showed a familiar pattern: the White House standing tough on issues that the Iraqis felt could be better managed by arbitration among themselves.
"Maybe the Americans like to have such a steadfast leader, but the real courage comes when you admit your mistakes, and then overcome them," he said. "In this case, Mr. Bush, with a moment's reflection, could have taken a decision that would have saved American as well as Iraqi lives."
The concern among those favoring a postponement has been that the voting will produce a heavily lopsided result, with Shiites and Kurds taking a disproportionate share of the assembly seats, and only a small rump of Sunnis.
The problems will be exacerbated if the Shiite alliance of religious and secular groups, the United Iraqi Alliance, wins a runaway victory. Although many of the alliance's candidates are moderate secularists, real power rests with the religious groups, which have close ties to Iran. Fears that Iran will manipulate the government that emerges from the elections appears certain to inflame the Sunni insurgents.
The religious groups, sensitive to the risk of further alienating Sunnis, have let it be known in the past week that they have no plan to place clerics in government, and that they will reach out to Sunnis to make sure they are fairly represented on the constitutional commission to be established by the new assembly, which will have the task of writing a permanent constitution in time for a referendum by Oct. 15 this year. If that deadline is met, and the constitution approved, a further nationwide election will be held by Dec. 15 for a permanent government with a five-year term.
But Mr. Atiyyah says the Americans should not be fooled. "The Iranians are much more clever than the Americans in this game," he said. "They will make life very difficult for the Americans, and the result will be history repeating itself. Just as they did in Afghanistan after they drove the Russians out, and then let matters drift, the Americans will preside over the rise of a new Taliban, except that here in Iraq there will be two Talibans, the Sunni Taliban who are already fighting the Americans, and a Shiite Taliban that the Americans themselves have placed in power."
Dexter Filkins, Edward Wong and Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Baghdad contributed reporting for this article.