Iraqi leader vows timely vote

Election won't be delayed, Allawi says in Capitol visit

`Thank you, America'

Bush says he'll consider adding troops for Iraq

September 24, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush joined Iraq's interim prime minister yesterday in vowing that national elections would be held in Iraq no later than January despite a recent surge in violence, and said he would consider an increase in U.S. troop strength if commanders asked for it.

Calling Iraqi elections the "most important step in our plan," Bush reaffirmed the timetable even though Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi acknowledged in a speech to a joint session of Congress that elections would "not be perfect" and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said sections of the country might be too torn by fighting to participate.

Allawi, saying, "Thank you, America," drew a warm standing ovation in the House chamber as the representative of Iraqis eager to exercise the rights of a free people.

Speaking of elections, he said, "I know that some have speculated, even doubted, whether this date can be met. So let me be absolutely clear. Elections will occur in Iraq on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time."

Speaking forcefully in fluent English, Allawi buttressed the Bush administration's assertions that Iraqi successes are outpacing setbacks, and heaped praise on the United States and members of Congress for taking the risky step of removing Saddam Hussein from power, saying, "The world is better off."

"We Iraqis know that Americans have made, and continue to make, enormous sacrifices to liberate Iraq, to assure Iraq's freedom," Allawi said, adding, "Your sacrifices are not in vain."

Later at the White House with Allawi beside him, the president responded to criticism from Democrats that he had failed to level with the public about the extent of problems in Iraq, saying, "It's tough work, everybody knows that. It's hard work."

Bush acknowledged that he erred earlier this week in dismissing a grim intelligence assessment of Iraq's near-term future as "guessing," but stressed that its scenarios of fragile stability or even civil war were "possibilities about what can happen in Iraq, not probabilities."

But he said "you can understand it's tough and still be optimistic," and warned that failure in Iraq would be a boon to terrorists elsewhere and open up a dark future for the United States. He said, "If we fail in Iraq, it's the beginning of a long struggle. We will not have done our duty to our children and our grandchildren."

The president's comments, made in the Rose Garden, followed several weeks of increasing troop casualties and attacks on civilians, including the beheadings this week of two Americans, that have fueled criticism of Bush's Iraq policies by Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

Kerry, campaigning yesterday in Ohio, said, "The prime minister and the president are here obviously to put their best face on the policy, but the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story."

"The United States and the Iraqis have retreated from whole areas of Iraq," Kerry told reporters outside a Columbus firehouse. "There are no-go zones in Iraq today. You can't hold an election in a no-go zone."

The chief of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill that more troops would be needed in Iraq to secure the elections and did not rule out that more Americans would have to be sent to supplement an increase in Iraqi or foreign forces.

"I don't foresee a need for more American troops, but we can't discount it," Abizaid said.

Bush said the general "didn't say that to me" when the two met yesterday morning, "but if he were to say that, I'd listen to him."

Allawi insisted Iraq didn't need more U.S. troops, only more trained Iraqis.

"When our commanders say that they need support, they'll get support, because we're going to succeed in this mission," Bush said.

The likelihood of holding credible elections in January has been thrown into increasing doubt by U.N. officials, members of Congress and analysts, who fear that voter registration, setting up polling places and even the voting itself would be so impeded by violence that the results would not be respected.

Questioned by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld sounded resigned to the prospect of many Iraqis being unable to participate.

"Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," Rumsfeld said. "Well, so be it. Nothing's perfect in life."

Bush, at the White House, urged that the United Nations send more staff members to help prepare for the vote. Fearing violence, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has placed a ceiling of 35 people, although analysts say a staff many times that size will be needed.

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