Any such call by Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), which has helped negotiate ceasefires and the release of foreign captives in the past, would resonate with many Iraqis and seriously undermine the poll's credibility.

About 200 clerics met last Wednesday to formulate a policy on Falluja and on elections they consider an illegitimate extension of US control. They say they want no part in the polls due by the end of January.

"In the event that Falluja is invaded or if it continues to be struck by planes the clerics of Iraq will call on Iraqis to boycott the elections," spokesman Muhammad al-Faidhi said at the association's headquarters on Sunday.

"This condition has already been breached as occupation forces have struck the town since the conference and it is now possible to take this decision.

"A follow-up committee will meet and announce this decision at the appropriate time."

While a boycott might impact on whether the elections are viewed as fair and credible, it is unlikely that such a call by the AMS, a mainly Sunni Muslim grouping, would be heeded by Iraq's other sectarian and ethnic communities.

Impossible to vote

But relentless bombing and the ongoing strategy of taking people captive have both raised fears that Iraqis in hotspots such as Falluja will be unable to vote.

The AMS has helped negotiate
the release of foreign captives

The United Nations said it was willing to provide negotiators to help prevent any election boycott.

"We are ready to take this role if asked," said Ashraf Qazi, UN envoy to Iraq.

"We must be optimistic and recognise a dialogue process is under way. We stand ready to assist," he said, adding that the world body's mandate provided for such a role.

Allawi's threat

Talks designed to secure the return of Iraqi security forces to Falluja collapsed more than a week ago after interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi threatened to storm the city unless residents handed over Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fighters.

But residents say they know nothing of al-Zarqawi and that US raids take a heavy toll on civilians.

Even if an attack on Falluja is averted, the AMS, which comprises thousands of mainly Sunni clerics from across Iraq, would dismiss the outcome of any ballot held under the gaze of 138,000 US troops.

"We will consider the results null and void because elections that come with the blood of Iraqis, the burning of their properties and the killing of their women and children are a farce that do not deserve respect," said Faidhi.