By: CORRELLI BARNETT
NEXT Sunday, an election will be held in Iraq in circumstances of unparalleled disorder, violence and intimidation.
It takes place against the background of 18 months of rising insurgency against the Allied occupation, the U.S.selected prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and his interim government.
Despite the ruthless reconquest of Fallujah by the Americans last November at the cost of the town's destruction and the flight of 200,000 refugees, we have seen car bombings and assassinations continue across the Sunni triangle, from Mosul to Baghdad and beyond.
Only this week, a senior judge was murdered along with his family.
Yesterday, 37 U.S. soldiers died: 31 in a helicopter crash and five in combat.
It is estimated that the Iraqi resistance numbers 20,000 fighters. The writ of Allawi's government has virtually ceased to run in four out of 18 Iraqi provinces.
Since the new Iraqi army and police force are acknowledged - even by President George Bush and the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld - to be too poorly trained and equipped to defeat the insurgents, it is only the continuing presence of 155,000 American and 9,000 British troops that has prevented Allawi's government being engulfed by its enemies.
Indeed, it is only the Allied presence which has so far prevented Iraq from sinking into anarchy and a civil war between Sunnis and Shias.
Why, then, back in November, did Allawi, Bush and Blair fix on January 30 as the right moment for elections to an Iraqi constituent assembly?
Did they really expect U.S. firepower to have restored the country to order and tranquillity by then?
If they did, they were naive beyond belief. The insurgents have redirected their campaign of violence and intimidation in order to wreck the elections or, at least, rob the result of legitimacy.
As we know, the Al Qaeda franchises in Iraq headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have been murdering election officials and threatening to kill any Iraqis who go out to vote on the day. No wonder that a growing number of election workers are quitting their posts.
So why have Bush and his chum Tony Blair clung so stubbornly to this date?
Well, to postpone the election after having proclaimed that it would go ahead despite all threats would have dealt a terrible blow to Bush's prestige.
But there are other reasons.
The mere holding of the election, say Bush and Blair, will mark a decisive 'victory' over the insurgents, so transforming the security situation.
And a successful election would open the way to an eventual democratic Iraqi government. That in turn would hold out to Bush and Blair the prospect of a much-desired exit from Iraq.
Blair, in particular, with a General Election likely this spring, desperately needs to be able to claim that far from being a crashing error of judgment, the war is leading to the spread of free institutions in the Middle East.
The truth is that both leaders are pinning their hopes on this Iraqi election in the same way, back in 2002-3, they hoped and believed that a swift victory over Saddam Hussein would usher in democracy in Iraq and so permit a swift reduction in the Anglo-American garrison.
In the same way, in the summer of 2003, they hoped and believed that the creation of an appointed Iraqi Governing Council would put an end to the Iraqi resistance.
In the same way, a year ago, they hoped and believed that the capture of Saddam Hussein would likewise tear out the heart of the resistance.
What romantic optimism!
What dangerous self-delusion!
And because of it nearly 1,400 American soldiers, 75 British soldiers and 16,000 Iraqi civilians have paid with their lives, to say nothing of civilian hostages such as Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan.
As it is, the organisation of the Iraqi election more closely resembles a military campaign than any election we would recognise in the West.
The American occupation forces have launched a countrywide offensive, grandiloquently codenamed Seeds of Liberty, to disrupt the insurgents.
Polling stations will be defended by 120,000 Iraqi police and national guards. The location of the 9,000 polling stations themselves will be kept secret until the day. And because of fear of assassination, no candidate will 'work the doorsteps'.
This is an election mounted in fear and shrouded in secrecy.
Moreover, the country's Sunni minority, formerly dominant under Saddam, will be virtually excluded from the poll and its outcome - partly because the Sunni political parties have decided on a boycott, partly because of al-Zarqawi's threat to kill anyone who votes. The Shias will therefore dominate the new National Assembly.
No wonder Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN envoy to Iraq, and General John Abizaid, the senior U.S. general in the country, have warned that the election poses a threat of civil war.
But even supposing that Bush and Blair's best hopes are fulfilled and the election goes off peaceably enough, the road map for Iraq's political future is a recipe for utter confusion.
The principal task of the 275 members of the new National Assembly will be to draft a constitution by August.
Just imagine: 275 inexperienced politicians - Shias, Kurds, Chaldeans, Turcomans, some Sunnis, all with clan connections and sectional interests - trying to agree a draft of something as complex as a national constitution in just seven months! And trying to do this while (as seems inevitable) the Sunni insurgency becomes even more ferocious.
If Bush and Blair really see salvation in such a process, they are even more deluded than when they believed, or chose to believe, that Saddam posed so urgent a threat that they must attack him.
I predicted in 2002 that a war on Iraq would end in a protracted guerrilla struggle between the Iraqis and the Americans and a steady rise in body bags.
That is exactly what has happened.
I will now predict that neither the Iraqi election nor the advent of a National Assembly will diminish the rate of insurgent attacks on the Anglo-American occupation forces and their Iraqi collaborators. In fact, it may well result in civil war instead.
The U.S. and Britain will therefore be mired in a prolonged entanglement in Iraq - all the time continuing to suffer a dripdrip of casualties. Iraq will remain, especially for the unfortunate Blair, a living version of 'the body under the patio'.
I will go further: the history of Iraq since the Twenties demonstrates that only dictatorship, whether moderate or ruthless, could hold together a country so fractured by racial, religious and clan rivalries. I do wonder if either Bush or Blair have ever bothered to study Iraq's political and social past.
So if - if! - Bush and Blair's hoped for 'democracy' is up and running in Iraq by 2006, how long will it last? One year? Five years? Will the new Iraqi army always prove loyal to democratic governments?
And if, in the distant future, another Saddam seizes power, will we have to invade the country all over again?
- CORRELLI BARNETT is the author of The Great War (BBC World Books, Pounds 12.99).