WASHINGTON — The CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department have warned President Bush that the United States and its Iraqi allies aren't winning the battle against Iraqi insurgents who are trying to derail the country's Jan. 30 elections, according to administration officials.
The officials, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity because intelligence estimates are classified, said the battle in Iraq wasn't lost and that successful elections might yet be held next month.
But they said the warnings -including one delivered this week to Bush by CIA Director Porter Goss - indicated that U.S. forces hadn't been able to stop the insurgents' intimidation of Iraqi voters, candidates and others who want to participate in the elections.
"We don't have an answer to the intimidation," one senior official said.
Nor have the United States and interim Iraqi government been able to find any divisions they can exploit to divide and conquer the Sunni Muslim insurgency, the intelligence reports say.
The elections are key to U.S. strategy in Iraq, and Bush and his team have insisted that they proceed as scheduled.
The president and other top White House officials have steadfastly predicted that the insurgency will fail, even as they have acknowledged lately that violence is rising.
"The terrorists will do all they can to delay and disrupt free elections in Iraq, and they will fail," Bush told cheering Marines last week in Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But several of the officials said a vital effort to woo Sunnis, who held privileged status under Saddam Hussein and are now spearheading the insurgency, hasn't borne fruit.
"It all boils down to the aura of the former regime. I think there are a lot of people sitting on the fence. They don't want to be seen as collaborating," one defense official said.
The Iraqi election is key to Bush's oft-stated belief that democracy and elections can transform the troubled Middle East. That broader policy faces another reality check Jan. 9, when Palestinians go to the polls to select a leader to replace the late Yasser Arafat.
Bush and Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice have signaled that pushing political and economic reform in the Middle East will be a second-term priority. They describe it as a way to curb terrorism from the region and enhance U.S. security.
Bush, speaking at Camp Pendleton, held Iraq up as a model: "The success of democracy in Iraq will also inspire others across the Middle East to defend their own freedom and to expose the terrorists for what they are - violent extremists on the fringe of society."
Yet even a successful election in Iraq might not be the model the United States wants to hold up to the rest of the region.
Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims are expected to dominate the Parliament, and there are concerns that the new government could have close ties to Iran and a theocratic bent.
Some Sunnis have agreed to participate - 13.9 million Iraqis have registered to vote out of a population of roughly 25 million - and observers hope that Iraq's nationalism will be strong enough to prevent Iran from having excessive influence.
A theocratic state in Iraq "is not exactly what the United States or the Europeans had in mind before the war," said Abdeslam Maghraoui, the director of the Muslim World Initiative at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent institution created by Congress to help resolve and prevent international conflicts.
Nor is Iraq an example that other Arab leaders want to follow, given that its transformation was begun by a U.S.-led war followed by sectarian divisions that blew into the open, Maghraoui and others said.
Governments in the Arab world, the least democratic region in the world, are "putting a premium on the issue of stability" now, a senior administration official acknowledged, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Iraqi election is key to the White House's hopes to begin withdrawing 150,000 American troops eventually.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said that ideally democracy in Iraq would be developed slowly from the grassroots, a process he said the United States started but abandoned.
"If you came down from Mars and say, `How do we have democracy in Iraq?,' you wouldn't have elections now," Indyk said.
The Iraqi and Palestinian elections come at a crucial time for Bush's broader push for political and economic reforms in the Middle East. His initiative has been watered down after running into resistance in the Arab world.
At a meeting in Morocco earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell was told that it would go nowhere unless the United States brokered peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
"You want the region to reform? Fix the mess in Iraq and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said an Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Powell "got an earful," the diplomat said, although in "a polite and nice" way.
But the senior administration official said the meeting, which brought together Middle Eastern and North African nations with the G-8 group of industrialized countries, was a success. All participants pledged to undertake political and economic reforms, at their own pace, and agreed to further steps, the official said.
"The sincerity of that, I think, time will tell," he added.
While Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations say a U.S.-led effort on Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to unlocking regional democratic reforms, Bush takes essentially the opposite approach.
He and his advisers have said democracy among the Palestinians, including modern government institutions, is the only way to create an independent Palestinian state next to Israel.
"These objectives - two states living side-by-side in peace and security - can be reached by only one path: the path of democracy, reform and the rule of law," Bush said at a news conference last month with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Preparations for the Palestinian presidential elections and other polls at the local level have gone surprisingly smoothly, and Israel has cooperated in the run-up. Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is considered likely to win.
Many foreign policy experts said that while Bush's instinct was correct, the policy was too simplistic.
"The president's gotten used to the democracy rhetoric. ... He's comfortable with it," said Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonprofit organization that promotes cooperation among nations. But, Carothers said, "It's got an ideological quality, kind of (like) being stuck on a thought."
Palestinian presidential elections won't transform the conflict with Israel, unless the United States, Israel and others follow up rapidly with steps toward Palestinian independence, Maghraoui said.
"Elections after elections" will not be helpful "unless the Palestinians know in the end they are going to have their own state," he said.
Indyk said the Iraq and Palestinian situations differed. The Palestinians chose a democratic process themselves rather than having it imposed from outside, he said. "That's a very positive development."
For the United States, he said, "Clearly, setting the bar high on democratization can be used as an excuse to walk away. ... If we're serious about democracy, we've got to come in and help them build their institutions."