OPPONENTS OF continued U.S engagement in Iraq frequently describe what they say is the misguided illusion that "Jeffersonian democracy" can be established in that country. The pitch sounds hard-nosed and pragmatic -- but Thomas Jefferson, we suspect, would not appreciate being used as a straw man. There's no question that the Iraqi elections planned for January, and any government that follows from them, will fall well short of democratic ideals. Yet it's anything but realistic to portray democracy as a system that only works when it is pure. Not only was Jefferson's democracy not entirely democratic (just ask African Americans and women), but the modern world is replete with examples of partially democratic countries -- and in most cases, their governments are better and their people freer than in the nondemocratic world.

Iraq may not become a "showcase" of democracy anytime soon. But even flawed elections stand a chance of producing a government with more legitimacy and public support than most others in the Arab Middle East. If successful, they are also a likelier route to stability in Iraq, and an eventual U.S. withdrawal, than the alternatives -- partition, civil war or continued U.S. sponsorship of a non-elected regime. It follows that the Bush administration is right to press forward with plans for elections even under the present difficult conditions. Almost any election would produce a more credible government than the current, U.N.-appointed administration -- and delay, especially if prolonged, would be a victory for Iraq's extremists and an invitation to chaos.

Yet it is also possible to imagine elections so flawed that they would not have the hoped-for effect of sapping legitimacy from an insurgency that appears to be gaining ground. In that sense, there are at least three reasons for worry about the current preparations for a January vote. One is the inability, so far, of the United Nations to deploy the hundreds of organizers needed to stage the balloting, and the related failure of the Bush administration to raise or deploy the protection force approved months ago by the U.N. Security Council.

A second concern is the ambiguous statements of Bush administration and Iraqi officials about whether they are committed to holding elections in Sunni areas of Iraq -- and to taking the military measures necessary to make voting possible. While elections held outside those areas could still allow participation by 80 percent or more of Iraqis, they would yield a government that excluded the very population from which most of the insurgency is now drawn. That would only encourage further resistance, whereas balloting in such towns as Fallujah and Ramadi, even if only partial, would deliver a major blow to the insurgents.

Third, the possible exclusion of Sunni voters has encouraged another questionable idea: the formation of a unified national election slate. This would ensure Sunni representation in the new National Assembly, but it might also turn the election into a one-sided affair in which assembly seats were apportioned among half a dozen competing parties by backroom deals rather than voters' choices -- and cause Shiite leaders who have supported the political process so far to turn against it. Although it can't necessarily control such political horse-trading, the Bush administration shouldn't encourage it. Instead, it should aim to create the broadest possible choice for the largest number of Iraqi voters in January. Even if the result is a less-friendly government, U.S. prospects in Iraq will improve in proportion to the degree of participation and fairness the elections achieve.