By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
With just a week to go before the election, Iraq has seen an upsurge of violence by insurgents determined to drive out the Americans and their allies. How long can the region sustain the fight for what President George W Bush has called the worthy prize of Iraq's liberation?
The US risks turning more Iraqis against it the longer it stays on
When I met Abdul Aziz al-Hakim at his house in Baghdad, they were still clearing up the debris and making new fortifications outside.
There had recently been a big suicide car bomb explosion at the gate, which killed 13 of his guards.
Mr Hakim, who wears the black turban of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, lives surrounded by symbols of Shia martyrdom, sacrifice and death.
On his wall, there is a big portrait of his brother, the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim.
He returned triumphantly in 2003 after 20 years in exile in Iran, but he died, with more than 80 other people, in a massive bomb blast three months later in the holy city of Najaf.
Abdul Aziz took his place, and he is now the top candidate on the unified list of Shia factions contesting the election.
On his tables, are bouquets of flowers from the well-wishers who came to congratulate him on surviving the bomb attack.
I noticed with a shock, that one of them is signed by the Governor of Baghdad, Ali al-Haidri.
High hopes: Supporters of Mr Hakim at an election rally in Basra
By now, he himself was dead. Two days after his visit with the flowers, he was ambushed and killed on his way to work.
That is the kind of election this has been. In fact, there have really been two campaigns going on.
One is between the bewildering array of jostling factions and individuals who have emerged to compete for seats.
The other is the deadly campaign of extreme violence aimed at disrupting the polls altogether.
Responsibility for both the car bomb attempt on Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the killing of the governor was openly claimed by the Sunni Muslim militant group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
It vowed to redouble its efforts to kill Mr Hakim - there was in fact another failed suicide bombing outside his party headquarters a week later.
It called him an "apostate", the worst insult for a Muslim, for the only penalty for apostasy is death.
Icons of resistance
The Zarqawi group and its like, are pan-Arab, Sunni extremists who have come here from outside.
But they have linked up with Iraqi Sunnis who are either like-minded, or disgruntled enough about the removal of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-based regime, to make common cause, against the Americans and anyone going along with them.
Between them, they have turned the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad into desperately dangerous hotbeds of what we call insurgency, where elections will be hard to hold even if anyone there dares to vote.
There are huge dangers gathering behind this election.
One is that this vicious Sunni violence aimed at Shia symbols and targets will make it increasingly hard to avoid sectarian strife, even civil war.
Insurgents could become icons of resistance among Sunni Muslims
So far, the Shia have held back, because they want this election to give them the majority share of power they have been so long denied.
Another danger - and it is already happening - is that the Sunni militants will be increasingly seen as resistance heroes fighting the American occupiers, just as Hamas and other Palestinians are resisting the Israelis.
Many of the images are the same.
Already, the Iraqi intelligence chief estimates that the insurgents have the active support of 200,000 people here.
The longer the American presence goes on, the more reaction it is likely to stir.
There were good reasons why President George Bush the father held back from invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein in 1991, and they are more obvious now with every passing day.
But his son, George W, apparently sees his re-election as validation of his Iraq policy.
If the Americans stay on, with a political agenda beyond helping the Iraqis decide their own course, whatever that may be, the big danger - and it also may already be happening - is that Iraq may inherit the role that Lebanon had in the early 1980s, as the battleground where all the region's struggles are fought out.
Car bombs pose a continuous threat to stability
The Americans pulled out of Lebanon in 1983 because the game wasn't worth the candle.
But Iraq is much more important, and there are bigger issues at stake.
Beside all this, the election itself has almost seemed a bit of a sideshow.
There has been precious little campaigning going on, in the western sense.
Most of it has consisted of TV advertising.
But with most people deprived of electricity a lot of the time, even that may have had little impact.
With no tradition of open elections to draw on, most Iraqis are confused by the complicated proportional representation system that's been adopted, by having to vote for lists, not individuals.
Most of the coalitions and factions are new, many of the candidates, unknown - in some cases literally, because they have been too frightened to declare themselves.
But the outcome will be important. Will the Shia masses, who make up 60% of the voters, tilt towards the religious parties headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim, raising fears of Iranian influence?
Or will they favour the secular alternatives, such as the coalition headed by the interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, who is strongly backed by the Americans?
What will become of the few Sunni candidates who did have the courage to stand, and whose active presence will be vital, if this patchwork country is somehow to hold together now that the grip of dictatorship is broken?
It is often forgotten that this is a transitional election.
There should be another one by the end of the year, once the new parliament has produced a constitution.
Those backing the process hope the situation then will be better, making a normal election possible. But they concede that it could be worse.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 January, 2005 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.