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Parts of Iraq unprepared for elections as surge in violence continues

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi election officials have been unable to operate—either freely or at all—in parts of the country where a third of the population lives, including regions that are home to most of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, according to a new Pentagon assessment obtained by Knight Ridder.

The difficult security environment was underscored Thursday night when seven U.S. soldiers were killed in northwest Baghdad after their Bradley fighting vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. A Marine was killed in action in Anbar province, a Sunni Muslim area that includes the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, according to a Marine release. The release gave no further details.

According the Pentagon assessment, due to be released Friday, Iraqi election officials responsible for organizing polling stations and distributing ballots have been unable to operate in Anbar and Ninevah provinces.

Furthermore, officials of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq have been able to function in only some areas of west Baghdad, it said.

About 24 percent of Iraq's population resides in the three areas, the assessment said.

The Pentagon assessment also said that the commission's work, while impeded, has proceeded in most areas of Salahaddin and Diyala provinces.

The commission is fully functioning in 13 other provinces and in east Baghdad, which holds 66 percent of the population.

The assessment reinforced fears among Iraqi and American officials that few Sunni Arabs will be able to vote, undermining the legitimacy of the election and President Bush's hopes for stabilizing the country.

The assessment came as Gen. Thomas Metz, the senior U.S. ground commander in Iraq, said in Baghdad Thursday that the number of insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops has been averaging 70 a day.

Despite claims from top U.S. military commanders in Iraq that the security situation is improving in advance of the elections, that's more than triple the number recorded in January 2004, suggesting that aggressive actions by U.S. forces have done little to stem the violence.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced Thursday that a national state of emergency would be extended for 30 more days. And the Iraqi government began consolidating its army, national guard and special forces units in hopes of forming a more united front against the guerrilla fighters and terrorists.

Bush administration officials are racing to find ways to increase Sunni participation in the election, in order to portray it as legitimate and avoid deepening the country's ethnic divisions. Shiite Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the population, are expected to dominate the vote, raising fears of a civil war after the election.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte are hammering out a security plan for the election that could involve shifting some American troops, according to a senior State Department official.

In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, American troops are funneling in reinforcements to regain portions of the town that were abandoned late last year by Iraqi security forces.

"I think what you will see in general terms is first a considerable increase in force (in Mosul). And secondly, a lot of density in the use of the force to try to re-establish conditions under which people can vote, if they wish to," said a senior U.S. Embassy officer in Baghdad Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We're putting a lot more permanent on-the-ground presence."

Other ideas involve measures to allow Sunnis in insecure areas to vote without exposing themselves to insurgents' attacks, said the officials in Washington, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because their comments weren't authorized.

But it remains far from clear whether the effort will succeed in making the election accessible and credible to Sunnis, who ruled Iraq before and during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

"The election, instead of turning out to be potentially a promising transformation of the conflict, has great potential for deepening the conflict. Indeed, we may be seeing an incipient civil war," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, President George H. W. Bush's national security adviser, said at a Capitol Hill luncheon Thursday.

Ideas to increase voting include:

_Banning travel across provincial borders during the election, in an effort to blunt insurgent attacks on voters and election officials.

_Deploying more of the U.S. troops already in Iraq to Sunni areas to provide additional security.

_Allowing voters in insecure areas to vote by alternate means, such as the mail or Internet.

_Consolidating the number of polling stations nationwide to make them easier to secure and using mobile voting booths. Such special measures may be particularly prevalent in Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.

Another senior administration official said the administration also is debating ways to give Sunnis a greater voice in the drafting of Iraq's new constitution, regardless of the election outcome. It would be legal to install additional Sunni representatives on Iraq's new constitutional committee, for example, he said.

In Baghdad, Metz stressed that the number of insurgent attacks—50 a day on U.S. forces and 20 on Iraqi forces—has fallen since November, which saw the U.S.-led assault on Fallujah and the highest number of American soldiers killed, 137, since the war in Iraq began.

"They are growing weaker, and the Iraqi people's spirit and determination ensures the thugs will not succeed," Metz said.

He wouldn't give the number of daily attacks for November, or any other month.

Before Thursday, military commanders had refused to release such statistics for several months, making it difficult to assess changes in the number of attacks U.S. and Iraqi forces face.

The figure that Metz gave for current attacks is lower than number given for last April, when attacks reached 100 per day during U.S. offensives in Fallujah and several towns to the south. But it's higher than those of many other months, including December 2003 through March 2004, and May 2004.

Nabil Mohammed Salem, a political analyst at Baghdad University, said the insurgency—which many Iraqis have come to call "the resistance"—is growing stronger by the day. "As long as there is an occupation, there will be resistance," Salem said.

Metz said that while he expects the number of attacks to rise during the weeks before national elections at the end of the month, he sees a steady improvement against the insurgency.

But during the past week, the governor of Baghdad was assassinated in broad daylight, and car bombs and other attacks killed at least 80 Iraqis. There were reports Thursday that the bodies of 18 Iraqis had been found in a field in northern Iraq. The young men, workers looking for jobs at an American base in Mosul, reportedly were pulled off a bus and shot in the head by insurgents. After American troops retook Fallujah from rebels who'd held it for more than half a year, violence in Mosul spiked. On Dec. 21, a suicide bomber infiltrated a U.S. base there, killing 22 people.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Nancy A. Youssef of the Detroit Free Press in Baghdad and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report, as did special correspondent Mohammed Al Awsy in Baghdad.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.