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Powell says Iraq worsening, but elections will be held in January

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Sunday that the situation in Iraq is "getting worse," but both he and Gen. John Abizaid, who commands the war effort, emphasized their confidence that Iraq will hold elections in January despite increasing violence.

The two men said that insurgents are trying to disrupt the election process and that both Washington and the interim government in Baghdad are determined to attack and regain control over more of the country. Abizaid conceded, however, that some sections of Iraq may not be orderly enough to permit voting by January.

With Iraq now the dominant issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, both top U.S. officials largely echoed President Bush's optimistic long-term outlook for the war-torn land.

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, emphasized over the past week that the insurgency in Iraq is growing, that more than 1,000 Americans are dead and 7,000 wounded, and he harshly faulted Bush for "colossal failures of judgment" and "failure to tell the truth" about conditions there.

Bush said that such language emboldens the enemy and demoralizes U.S. troops, but when asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" if he shared Bush's view, Abizaid replied that "debate is what our country is all about."

Under questioning, Powell acknowledged that "yes, it's getting worse. And the reason it's getting worse is that they (the insurgents) are determined to disrupt the election. They do not want the Iraqi people to vote for their own leaders in a free, democratic election."

Powell stressed that means the United States must buckle down.

"Because it's getting worse, we will have to increase our efforts to defeat it, not walk away and pray and hope for something else to happen," he said on ABC News' "This Week."

Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq and Afghanistan, was more upbeat.

"The constant drumbeat in Washington of a war that is being lost, that can't be won, of a resistance that is out of control, simply do not square with the facts on the ground," he said.

Abizaid acknowledged, however, that U.S. troops in Iraq are in "a tough fight, a difficult fight," but insisted repeatedly that he is confident that January elections will be held successfully in the "vast majority" of the country and that eventually Iraq will become a stable democracy "that will set the standard for the region as well."

Powell said that the elections must withstand international scrutiny to be considered credible, but Abizaid cautioned against expecting too much from a war zone.

"I don't think we'll ever achieve perfection, and when we look for perfection in a combat zone we're going to be sadly disappointed," the general said. "If I recall, looking back at our own election four years ago, it wasn't perfect either."

For now, both men said that U.S. and Iraqi forces must launch a major military offensive to do "whatever's necessary to bring areas in Iraq under Iraqi control," as Abizaid put it. Powell said the military probably will move on the Sunni Triangle cities of Ramadi and Samarra before trying to impose order in Fallujah, which Powell called "the tough one." Abizaid declined to discuss specific military plans.

Longer term, Abizaid warned that Americans "need to brace themselves for a long war in the Middle East and Central Asia, because the battle is being waged out here between extremists and moderates." He said that defeating extremist Muslims in the region need not take large numbers of American troops, but it will take resolve to help moderates in the region prevail.

More immediately, Powell said that Washington is helping Iraq organize a conference of Middle Eastern and Western countries later this year to discuss what they all can do to help Iraq. The conference is expected to include Iran, Syria, Egypt and the G8 industrial democracies. The meeting probably will be held in late October or November in Amman, Jordan or Cairo, Egypt, Powell said on CNN's "Late Edition."

One of Democrat Kerry's central criticisms of Bush's policy is that Bush has failed to enlist enough allies, and Kerry has called for just such an international conference. This one apparently would be scheduled near Election Day, Nov. 2.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Abizaid