The United Nations has failed to fully staff its operation in Iraq, imperiling the timing and quality of the elections there and forcing inexperienced Iraqis to take the lead in preparing for the country's first democratic balloting, due in January, U.S. officials and election experts said.

Of the 35 U.N. officials in Iraq, only four or five are election experts, U.N. officials said. In Afghanistan, which has a similar-size population, the U.N. had 600 international staff, including 266 election experts, for the first democratic poll this month. A major increase in Iraq is unlikely soon because of deteriorating security and the U.S. failure to quickly mobilize Georgian and Fijian troops for a protection force or provide an acceptable alternative, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is trying to lower expectations that the United Nations will play a central role in the voting, telling reporters in Ireland on Friday that the world body "is not going to Iraq to monitor the elections in January."

"Our role is to support and advise the Iraqi authorities as they organize the elections," he said. "They are responsible for the elections, and they have ownership of those elections."

The U.S.-led coalition had anticipated that the United Nations would have the dominant role in Iraq's elections, as it has in democratic transitions around the world over the past quarter-century. A prominent U.N. role was also considered essential to confer legitimacy on the political transition, which has faced challenges both inside and outside Iraq because it has been widely viewed as controlled by the United States so far.

But the United States and the United Nations are now caught in a diplomatic Catch-22, U.S. and U.N. officials and election experts said. The Bush administration is disappointed in U.N. reluctance to deploy more staff; the United Nations is frustrated that the United States has not quashed the insurgency, leaving the country too dangerous for foreign election workers.

U.S. officials insist the elections will proceed as planned, but election experts say the U.N. team is inadequate to oversee the process. "It certainly looks like an enormous gap between what is needed and what's available," said Columbia University's Edward Luck. "It looks like the U.N. has a group that would be sufficient for Costa Rica. It's clearly not sufficient for a country as large and diverse as Iraq, especially when taking place under very special circumstances."

The top U.N. election official, Carina Perelli, originally estimated that Iraq would need at least 270 U.N. advisers to oversee credible elections. But tentative plans to deploy an additional 25 U.N. staff members in Iraq were put on hold after bombings last week in the tightly secured Green Zone, where the Iraqi government, the U.S. Embassy and military headquarters, and the U.N. election team are based, U.N. officials said. "The latest bombing underscores our concern about the overall security situation in Iraq," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said yesterday.

As a result, a seven-member Iraqi election commission is now largely in charge of the elections, which will choose a 275-member national assembly. The assembly will then select a new government to replace the current, appointed leadership and oversee the writing of a new constitution.

So far, the Iraqi commission has hired about 500 staff members. But Iraq, a country the size of California, is expected to have 10 million or more voters eligible to register at 550 sites, which will require about 6,000 Iraqis to help. For the elections, U.N. and election experts said, Iraq will have 30,000 polling stations dispersed in 18 provinces, with at least four people at each site -- for a total of 120,000.

U.S. officials praise the Iraqis for their hard work and determination but note that they were picked for their reputations and lack of ties to Iraqi politics, past or present. So they came to the job with little experience, and their training has been limited to a two-week course in Mexico this summer.

"You're not talking about an election run by the U.N., but an election run by Iraqis with some U.N. assistance. And then the question becomes Iraqi capabilities, not the U.N. capability," said Daniel Serwer, a former diplomat and director of the Peace and Stability Operations program at the United States Institute of Peace. "We shouldn't underestimate them, but it's really a question of how much Iraqis want to vote and how much they can get organized under truly horrendous conditions."

U.S. officials praise the chief U.N. election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, for performing ably and seriously. He is a nonvoting member of the Iraqi commission. But with the voting just 31/2 months away, both Iraq and the U.S.-led multinational force there are pressing U.N. officials for more help. "We had expected them to be more involved in the elections in terms of numbers, the scope of work and preparations, and to help organize voter education and political parties," said a State Department official involved with Iraq.

U.N. officials hope the deployment of a small group of Fijian troops next month to provide personal security for U.N. officials will lead Annan to send more staff. But the battalion of Georgian troops, which would provide the bulk of protection, may be several weeks away, U.S. officials said. The United Nations insists on a comprehensive security plan before expanding its team.

A proposal by Saudi Arabia for a Muslim peacekeeping force in Iraq was quashed by both Iraqi and U.S. officials because of concerns about the chain of command, the White House said yesterday.

Annan faces strong resistance from two U.N. unions representing 60,000 staffers, which recently called for the withdrawal of the current staff in Iraq, citing an increase in hostage-takings and executions of foreigners. "Last year, we witnessed the tragic death of 22 colleagues in Baghdad. We do not wish to witness the same again," said a joint letter from the two groups. Annan withdrew U.N. personnel in Iraq a year ago after two suicide bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Three U.S.-based groups -- the International Foundation of Election Systems, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute -- are assisting the Iraqis with different aspects of the poll.

But U.S. election experts now say that election preparations will have to be accelerated dramatically if the voting is to be held on schedule.