In sharp contrast to US President George Bush and interim Iraqi leader Iyad Allawi's optimism over planned polls, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the troubled country might end up holding only limited elections.

"If there were to be an area where the extremists focused during the election period, and an election was not possible in that area at that time, so be it. You have the rest of the election and you go on. Life's not perfect," Rumsfeld said.

He said an election could perhaps be held in "three-quarters or four-fifths of the country. But in some places you couldn't because the violence was too great".

"Well, so be it. Nothing's perfect in life, so you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet," the defence secretary said.

"If there were to be an area where the extremists focused during the election period, and an election was not possible in that area at that time, so be it. You have the rest of the election and you go on. Life's not perfect"

Donald Rumsfeld
US Defence Secretary

Contradictory

Rumsfeld's candid admission contradicted defiant assertions by Bush and Allawi during the day that progress was being made in Iraq and elections would be held in January.

"They may not be the best elections that Iraq will ever hold ... but they will take place and they will be free and fair," insisted Allawi at a joint news conference with Bush at the White House.

Rumsfeld's remarks echoed concerns voiced earlier by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan about Iraq's worsening security situation.

Annan said unremitting violence made elections in January look highly implausible.