BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Plans for holding Iraqi national elections in January elicit growing skepticism among many Iraqis who question whether balloting can be free and fair so long as the Americans wield such vast influence over the country.
Mounting violence has already delayed the elections for months. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed for nothing more than lining up to take jobs with the police or to sign on with the national guard. Insurgent mortar and rocket attacks are daily events even in Baghdad. Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi are under the control of militants.
Going to the polls may well be a very dangerous undertaking, and the possibility of a truly representative government emerging from the January voting appears a diminishing hope.
If the vote proves credible, Iraqis will have chosen a genuinely representative government for the first time in modern history. The elections are vital to a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq.
But attaining that level of credibility will prove difficult in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high, most people distrust the key players in Iraq's postwar politics and many tend to routinely blame the United States for everything that goes wrong.
Additionally, there is a widespread expectation that large and well-funded political parties -- with tacit U.S. patronage -- will trounce smaller anti-American groups.
The 275-seat assembly to be elected will draft a permanent constitution for a nationwide referendum by next Oct. 15. If the constitution is adopted, a second general election will be held two months later and a democratic government would take control by Jan. 15, 2006.
Despite the raging violence, President Bush and Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are determined the vote must go ahead on schedule.
Security concerns, however, are at the forefront.
The task of protecting approximately 20,000 polling stations across Iraq will be a major challenge for the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces as they try to strike a balance between providing security and not appearing to be influencing the vote.
The United States formally ended its occupation of Iraq June 28, handing over power to the Allawi interim government. But the sheer size of its military presence in Iraq -- 140,000 troops, argue critics, gives the U.S. Embassy here the wherewithal to influence policy in Iraq, if not call the shots.
Such views resonate with many ordinary Iraqis.
"America will do its utmost so that its loyal men can win and later adopt all its policies," said Baghdad civil servant Shawkat Ahmed, 52.
Diplomats in Baghdad concede the January vote will be far from ideal, given the security situation. They say large political parties with roots in decades of exile are negotiating electoral alliances that would almost certainly squeeze out smaller, less well-organized groups.
"Do you think that the Americans will allow the election to produce anti-occupation winners?" said Baghdad University political scientist Wameedh Omar.
The large political parties, like Allawi's Iraqi National Accord or the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, used their time in exile beyond the reach of Saddam's feared security agencies to develop their organizational structures and cultivate reliable backers abroad. Most of them have little or modest popular support in Iraq.
"The Americans cannot lose in either case," said Muthana al-Dhari, a senior member of an influential anti-U.S. Sunni group with suspected links to the insurgency, echoing a widespread notion in Iraq.
"An election will produce a government loyal to them. If no elections are held, then its occupation of Iraq will continue," said al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars.
Hendawi and Velenzuela, however, deny that the election rules favor the big parties.
"Skepticism and reservations are expected," Hendawi said. "It's only natural."
Hamza Hendawi has been based in Baghdad since January 2003.