BAGHDAD, Dec. 1 -- Interim President Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni Muslim tribal sheik, added his influential voice Wednesday to calls for national elections to be held in Iraq as scheduled on Jan. 30, placing him at odds with a number of Sunni parties concerned that violence in their political heartland will make voting there impossible.
Yawar endorsed the January date during a news conference, and made clear he was offering a personal opinion and not seeking to influence the ostensibly independent commission overseeing much of the elections process. But his stature in Iraq's uneasy Sunni minority, which wielded decisive power in Saddam Hussein's government, may convince Sunni leaders threatening to boycott the election that the vote will likely take place with or without them.
"There is a legal and ethical commitment" to holding a vote as scheduled, President Ghazi Yawar said in Baghdad.
"Personally, I think there is a legal and ethical commitment to holding the elections before the 31st of January," Yawar said, citing the timeline set out in a law charting Iraq's transition from U.S. occupation to self-government. Later he said: "There are some people talking about delaying the elections, and they have some logical and realistic points for their call. I think we can solve all of this by dialogue. We should know that the elections are our savior in Iraq."
More than a dozen Sunni parties have threatened a boycott that could undermine the election's validity in the eyes of many Iraqis. U.S. and Iraqi officials have portrayed establishment of an elected Iraqi government as the most important step toward ending a resilient Sunni-led insurgency and moderating the strong anti-occupation sentiments of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.
Because of recent U.S. military operations against insurgents in Sunni-dominated provinces north and west of Baghdad -- an area once deeply loyal to Hussein -- Sunni leaders have called the situation there too dangerous for a fair vote. Some have proposed that the elections be postponed until, in their view, it is safe to hold them.
U.S. officials, as well as Shiite political and religious leaders, have opposed any delay in the January election for a 275-member National Assembly, which in turn would select a new government and draft a constitution. Iraq's electoral timetable includes three rounds of voting next year, and delaying the January ballot would likely set back plans for Iraq's first nationally elected postwar government, to be chosen in December 2005.
"This could help," Carlos Valenzuela, head of the U.N. election advisory group in Iraq, said of Yawar's statement. "It does not address what all of the Sunnis are asking, but the Sunnis are not a homogeneous bloc. No religious or ethnic group in Iraq is."
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, meanwhile, met with Sunni leaders in Jordan on Wednesday in the hope of convincing them that elections should be held on schedule and that Iraq would benefit from broad participation across religious and ethnic lines.
After weeks of intensive military operations in Sunni cities and steady insurgent attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere, relative calm prevailed Wednesday throughout much of the country. U.S. military officials announced that operations in a string of cities south of Baghdad, a hazardous choke point for almost all traffic heading in that direction from the capital, had led to the arrest of more than 200 suspected militants.
Several small-scale attacks on U.S. troops were reported, including in the northern city of Mosul. No U.S. soldiers were reported killed.
The debate over whether conditions are safe enough to hold elections in January has exposed Iraq's long-standing ethnic and religious divisions, but there were signs Wednesday that some of the opposition to the timing was fading. Iraq's two well-organized Kurdish parties, which initially supported a delay in the January voting, and a host of smaller groups indicated that they supported going ahead with the elections as scheduled.
Leaders of the two Kurdish parties, which fought each other briefly in the 1990s, announced that they were forming a single list of candidates for seats in the assembly to avoid splintering their potential political strength. The two main parties announced that they would field 111 candidates, and 27 more would come from smaller Kurdish groups.
"Because of the security situation and the current circumstances in the country, we needed to be unified," Fawzi Atroushi, an official with the Kurdish Democratic Party, told al-Jazeera television. "Maybe in the future we'll have more than one slate."
Hoping to generate enthusiasm for the elections, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq unveiled a series of public service television spots. Two featured a popular, diminutive comic confused by registration and voting procedures but determined to participate. Another depicted a Kurdish family overcoming potential pitfalls in the registration process.
But election officials acknowledged that voting information centers were still not open in some of Iraq's more dangerous cities and that mistakes would likely occur during the process of registering roughly 14 million voters for the first time. Registration cards have been damaged in some northern cities, and election officials said workers distributing registration forms along with monthly food rations had been threatened by insurgents.
"Other areas where we are having trouble, we will have alternatives," said Safwat Rashid, an electoral commission member. "We are expecting conditions to improve."