The top U.N. elections expert says everything is on track for holding a nationwide vote in Iraq by next January. The official warned that fear will be an important theme in the election campaign.

Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division, says that, security permitting, Iraqis will go to the polls by January 31, 2005.

Ms. Perelli recently completed her second mission to Iraq in as many months. She says she is encouraged that all timetables have been met in preparation for the vote, including the May 31 deadline for the appointment of an independent Iraqi Election Commission.

"We have the commission in place, and we are entering into the second phase, which is a relatively complex phase, because it has to do with the commission being the ones now making the decision," she explained. "The U.N. has brokered the agreement. From now on we are acting as advisers to the commission. Then we have to make the key decisions. We are on track from a technical and institutional point of view right now."

Ms. Perelli downplayed concerns about many issues in Iraq, such as voter illiteracy. She pointed out that credible elections are held in many countries with large percentages of illiterate voters. She said what concerns her most is fear, not only fear of violence, but concerns by voters of retaliation by their political opponents.

"I agree that the issue of fear is going to be a theme in this election, not only because of intimidation of voters during Saddam era," she said. "I don't think a single Iraqi would take seriously an election where you send kids to vote for the family in proxy voting, but fear has to do with the other side of the coin, which is trust. This election will work as long as Iraqis start to trust the process, [as long as they know] the possibility of retaliation against them is minimized, that the electoral authorities are going to play a fair game, that everything is going to be done in order to guarantee that the vulnerable will be able to express their voice."

Ms. Perelli said her work in Iraq has convinced her that the vast majority of Iraqis support free elections and believe they can produce a satisfactory result.

"My own feeling after spending a considerable amount of time in Iraq is that there is silent majority there that would be more than able to express opinions if they have chance, and are sure there won't be retaliation. They want to go on with lives," she said.

Ms. Perelli says while security concerns are at a high point during the period leading up to the June 30 handover of sovereignty in Iraq, her U.N. electoral team is proceeding with its work. She indicated, however, that security conditions would have to improve in order for final preparations to be made later this year and next January.