"Flawed Elections: Disputed Results" was the slogan at a gathering in Baghdad on Sunday of about 200 mainly Sunni Muslim politicians and party officials after a sharp upsurge in violence following a period of relative calm.

"How can you imagine, in the climate of violence, that candidates can go out to campaign and how can you guarantee that electors can go vote without risking their lives?" Mishan al-Juburi, of the Sunni Freedom and Reconciliation bloc, asked.

"Terrorists have taken control of Mosul (the main northern city) and the government is incapable of doing anything," he said, adding that those who insisted on sticking to the January timetable "want simply to seize power".

Sixty-six corpses, mostly of police, have been found in Mosul since 19 November as anti-US fighters continue to target the US-backed Iraqi security forces.

Delay favoured

Speaker after speaker said delaying the poll would be better than undermining its legitimacy, especially as the ballot is to set the foundations for permanent institutions.

Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the moderate Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, insisted a delay "does not mean bowing to the threats" of those behind the attacks.

But he said: "The deterioration in security conditions in numerous provinces means we should postpone them."

Al-Ibrahimi: Poll should only take
place if security improves

More than 90 people have been killed in the past three days in attacks against US forces, their allies and Iraqi security services across the country. The United States insists that the 30 January date be kept.

Al-Hashimi, however, distanced himself from the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which has called for a boycott of the poll to protest against military assaults on Sunni areas and rejects any polls organised "under occupation".

Al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi, special adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and until recently his top envoy in Iraq, said in a newspaper interview that the landmark vote could only take place "if first and foremost security improves".

Leader confident

But Iraqi officials and their US backers have insisted that the elections for a national assembly, provincial councils and a Kurdish regional assembly will take place as planned.

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar told US television on Sunday that elections in his country could be held by the target date if the international community provided sufficient support.

"We are asking the United Nations, the whole international community, to help us," al-Yawar told NBC television.

"We do not think that postponing elections or delaying it will solve the problem," he added.

Al-Yawar is to meet US President George Bush at the White House on Monday.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's own party, however, was one of 10 mainstream political groups, backed by seven other organisations, which called last month for the elections to be postponed for six months.