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With elections scheduled to take place in less than three weeks, the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. There are real doubts that a national vote can be held, a prospect that would seriously — if not fatally — undermine the legitimacy of the resulting government.

Nonetheless, the United States and the existing Iraqi government remain committed to holding the vote as scheduled. Friends and supporters of democracy in Iraq face a dangerous dilemma: Whether to proceed with elections, though flawed they may be, or to postpone them and, by doing so, encourage extremists to inflame conditions further.

Violence has become a fact of life in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion nearly two years ago. Yet as the Jan. 30 election approaches, insurgents are stepping up efforts to disrupt the ballot. Previously, the allied forces that had occupied the country were their primary target. They are still being attacked, but now it is Iraqis who either have allied with the occupiers or who are otherwise working to bring peace, stability and elections, that are bearing the brunt of the onslaught.

In the last month, more than 100 Iraqi police have been killed; suicide bombings and other attacks have killed over 100 people in the past week alone. Earlier this week, Baghdad’s deputy policy chief was assassinated. Election offices have been targeted, and some officials have been threatened with death and killed.

Air Force Gen. Erv Lessel, the deputy operations director for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, has warned that insurgents may attempt “spectacular” attacks as the Iraqi election approaches.

The strategy of instilling fear is working. Last week, the entire 13-member electoral commission in Anbar province resigned after being threatened by insurgents. The members have since gone into hiding. U.N. officials, overseeing the vote, deny reports of mass resignations, and claim that all those who had stepped down have been replaced.

Still, even Prime Minister Ayad Allawi now admits that parts of Iraq are too dangerous for elections. Mr. Allawi recently extended the state of emergency that was announced two months ago for 30 more days throughout the country, except for the northern Kurdish-run areas. The decree includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government additional power to make arrests and launch military or police operations. Yet even that measure will not be sufficient to permit elections throughout the entire country.

It is widely believed that the situation is too violent in four provinces to hold a ballot. Unfortunately, those four provinces hold more than half Iraq’s population. Sunni Muslims are a majority in those provinces. And although the Sunnis are a minority in Iraq — making up about 20 percent of the population — they held power under Saddam Hussein. Real democracy will disenfranchise them, and that prospect is thought to be fueling their insurgency — as well as extremists’ hatred of the U.S. and the plans for genuine democracy in Iraq. The country’s Sunni leaders are demanding that the election be postponed and have backed that demand with calls for a boycott.

To help stabilize the situation, Mr. Allawi has said he will increase the Iraqi Army from 100,000 soldiers to 150,000. Those forces are unlikely to be ready by election day, and thus far the loyalties of many of the troops in uniform are suspect.

U.S. President George W. Bush remains committed to the Jan. 30 election. He knows that the vote is a critical test of his plans for the entire region. Much of his credibility and his policy rest on the result. He has said the U.S. will do its best to ensure that every Iraqi citizen can vote, but the commander of U.S. forces on the ground concedes that he cannot guarantee that everyone who wants to vote can do so safely.

The failure to ensure that all Iraqis can vote will raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the resulting government. There will be no “triumph of democracy” in Iraq if substantial portions of the electorate cannot participate. Even worse, the disenfranchisement of a large portion of Iraqi citizens — along ethnic lines — is a virtual guarantee of conflict and perhaps even civil war.

If that occurs, the nightmare that was long feared may be realized: Iraq’s Muslim community splits, and the country’s Kurds seize the opportunity to realize their long-held dream of a Kurdish state. That would invite intervention by neighboring powers — in particular Turkey and Iran — and the U.S. dream of a remade Middle East would at last come true, but not as expected.

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