While George W. Bush and John F. Kerry were trading barbs over past choices on Iraq, little attention was being directed to a decision that could have a momentous effect on that country's political future: Will the United States allow Iraq to hold competitive elections in January? Or will it play it safe, convert the announced election into a referendum over a single list of candidates and thus send a message to all Middle East regimes that it agrees with them that free elections are too risky for such a volatile corner of the world?

Free, fair and competitive elections -- in other words, elections as they should be in a democracy -- are what the United States has promised Iraq. Despite the difficulties caused by lack of security, particularly in the Sunni Triangle, Washington has reiterated its commitment to holding elections in January, the scheduled deadline.

Elections held under conditions of insecurity are difficult and never perfect, but they have successfully taken place in many countries and might work in Iraq. The problem is that many in the U.S. government, particularly in the embassy in Baghdad, are not sure that the United States should risk holding a genuine election. They want to opt instead for less-risky, noncompetitive elections, in which the outcome would be predetermined. Their preference is to push for a "monster coalition" of major political parties, which would agree among themselves ahead of time how to apportion parliamentary seats and cabinet posts.

Such a coalition would include the same secular and religious Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties that have been in the Iraqi Governing Council and now back Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. As in the past, power would be apportioned among them so that no party could dominate. With this coalition running unopposed, or at best against a coalition of weak new parties, election results would be predetermined and the risk eliminated. But the price would be high.

Genuine competitive elections could make a real difference in Iraq. They would give the future government a degree of legitimacy that a U.S.-engineered coalition would never attain. They would send a signal to Iraq and the region that the United States keeps its word, and they perhaps would begin to restore at least a minimum amount of trust in the sincerity of the U.S. government. They would set an example for other Arab countries.

But they might also lead to the formation of a government dominated by Shiite religious parties. These parties are trying to build their own, separate coalition, on the assumption that together they will win the election because Shiites are the majority in Iraq. The formation of a government dominated by religious parties would be a humiliation for the Bush administration, a sign that, again, the reality of Iraq has trumped American plans. By trying to absorb the Shiite parties into the monster coalition, the United States hopes to dilute their influence.

But while noncompetitive elections pose no danger, they would not increase the legitimacy of the new government or persuade Iraqis to rally behind it. Shiites would feel cheated of their victory, but Sunnis would still feel underrepresented and powerless, particularly if much of the Sunni Triangle could not vote because of a lack of security. Kurds would continue weighing their options. Nothing would change, in fact, because noncompetitive elections would bring to power a government that looks very much like the present one.

In exchange for a decrease in short-run risk, the United States would undermine its capacity to promote political reform in the Arab world. By avoiding competitive elections out of fear of an Islamist victory, the United States would play into the hands of the Arab governments that use the Islamic threat to justify their authoritarianism. For the democratic parties and organizations of civil society in the Arab world, the example of noncompetitive elections in Iraq would be extremely discouraging. As for Iraqis, being called to the polls to cast a vote that does not entail a choice would be a throwback to the days of Saddam Hussein.

Competitive elections are risky, but risk and uncertainty are the price of democracy. There is never going to be a better time to take that first difficult step into uncertainty in Iraq than now, when the presence of 140,000 American troops makes it unlikely that even a victory by Shiite parties would lead to a Khomeini-style Islamic republic. By settling for the low-risk option, the United States would only postpone the day of reckoning, set up another regime of marginal legitimacy and announce to the world that this country speaks of liberty but is afraid of democracy. That would be a bad choice.

The writer is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.