Violence dampens prospects for Iraq elections

Provinces still lack voting infrastructure

September 26, 2004|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Large swaths of Iraq still remain outside the control of the interim government, major highways are fraught with attackers, and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi - along with the U.S. Embassy and much of the international community - must conduct business in fortified compounds guarded by tanks, blast walls and barbed wire.

On Thursday, Allawi gave Congress an upbeat assessment of Iraq, but the situation on the ground is more complicated.

Allawi said the Iraqi people were making steady progress in taking control of the nation's affairs. His government assumed sovereignty from the U.S.-led occupation. It reopened schools, hospitals and clinics damaged in the war. Despite attacks against Iraqi forces, hundreds of Iraqis still volunteer to join the police and army. And Allawi pledged that the country would hold elections in January.

This month, widespread anxiety engulfed much of Iraq as a wave of car bombings, kidnappings and gunbattles between insurgents and U.S. troops killed scores of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The continuing violence has overshadowed signs of progress and dampened the prospect of democratic elections after three decades of dictatorship.

Allawi said it was "a fact" that elections could be held in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "tomorrow." But few experts preparing for the ballot would agree. The consensus among poll-watchers is that having nationwide elections by January, as scheduled, will be difficult.

Apart from the widespread violence, each province of Iraq still lacks an electoral infrastructure - a fact that some view as an even greater challenge than security.

"How can we hold elections when they will bomb every polling booth?" asked Husham Mahdi, a 29-year-old communications engineer in Baghdad, echoing a commonly expressed sentiment.

Allawi's upbeat assessment did not mention a core problem - the disenfranchisement of the Sunni Muslim minority - widely recognized as the major challenge facing Iraq.

Sunni Muslims, who lost their privileged status after Hussein's ouster, launched the insurgency and have managed to hold off the world's most powerful military.

"They, Sunni Muslims, are the key to the population here," said Col. John C. Coleman, chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which patrols the Sunni heartland to the west and south of Baghdad. "Many of them look to the central government not as their advocate. There are many who would just like a seat at the table and don't quite understand how to get there just yet. They are frustrated by the process."

In a question-and-answer session after his congressional speech, Allawi called Baghdad "very good and safe."

In the restive city of Samarra, Allawi said, a new police chief had recently been appointed and Iraqi forces were patrolling the city "in close coordination" with the U.S.-led coalition. But U.S. commanders say that the city remains far from pacified, even if the Army recently entered the town for the first time in months.

"Samarra is not over with," said Lt. Col. James Stockmoe, intelligence officer for the 1st Infantry Division, which patrols Samarra.

The new police chief appointed this month resigned on receiving death threats after a few days on the job. He was, at the minimum, the 12th police chief in the city of 200,000 since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Some U.S. military officials believe that the city's police force is in cahoots with insurgents who have gained access to police weapons and vehicles. A police truck was laden with explosives in July before the driver plowed into a U.S. base, killing five U.S. soldiers and injuring 18.

The U.S. Army is still rebuilding the Iraqi National Guard contingent in Samarra after an entire U.S.-trained battalion abandoned its post this summer amid attacks and threats.

Allawi said the performance of newly trained Iraqi security forces "is improving every day."

U.S. commanders credit Iraqi forces for helping to drive from Najaf fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But it remains questionable whether Iraqi forces can take on insurgents without U.S. help. Shortages of equipment and personnel continue to trouble Iraqi forces.

On a recent visit to Baquba, a city northeast of Baghdad where police have often been targeted, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus - who is overseeing the training of Iraqi forces - listened as area police and national guard officers said they desperately needed more trained officers and equipment. His visit came a few days after 11 provincial police officers were killed in a drive-by attack on their minibus.

"We've got to create a training academy here," said Petraeus, who also offered to ship new armored vehicles, body armor and other much-needed gear from Baghdad. "We have a huge parking lot filled with more than 1,000 vehicles. If need be, we'll go and get them to you."

The continued inability of Iraqi forces to secure areas after U.S. offensives has been a major reason such operations have been put on hold in places like Samarra and Fallujah, both rebel strongholds.

"We have got the tactical ability to do just about anything, but what I don't want to do is create a vacuum," said Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational chief for U.S.-led multinational forces, in a recent interview.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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