WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged yesterday that the Iraqi insurgency is "getting worse," and the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East predicted that fighting will continue through the Iraqi national elections set for late January.
The bleak appraisals by Powell and Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, reflect a recent change of emphasis in the Bush administration's evaluation of Iraq and raised new doubts about whether conditions would allow credible elections early next year.
Their comments were made in television interviews as President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, prepared for their first debate, an exchange Thursday that is likely to be dominated by the war.
Kerry has accused Bush of being "in denial" about the reality in Iraq and of painting a false picture of success.
The less-than-optimistic forecasts from the administration over the past week drew praise from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, who told CBS' Face the Nation yesterday, "I think finally we're getting a little candor from the administration."
Earlier, administration officials had highlighted progress being made toward stabilizing Iraq, whereas in recent days they have stressed a resolve to defeat the insurgents and the ways they intend to accomplish that.
Powell said yesterday that Iraqi leaders might have to reassess whether to move ahead with the election plan. Abizaid predicted that the elections would be held, but conceded that some areas might not be safe enough for voting.
Graham, who has visited Iraq twice, said parts of Iraq will still be "ungovernable" in January.
Powell and Abizaid said the insurgents want to prevent Iraq from holding free elections and to undermine its development as a democracy.
"We are fighting an intense insurgency, generated by those who want to take Iraq back to the past, as well as terrorists who come in to make trouble," Powell said on ABC's This Week.
Asked whether the insurgency is getting worse, he replied: "Yes, it's getting worse. And the reason it's getting worse is that they are determined to disrupt the election. They do not want the Iraqi people to vote for their own leaders in a free, democratic election."
Abizaid, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, said: "We're going to have to fight our way all the way through elections, and there will be a lot of violence between now and then."
He added, "I am not predicting victory by January at the end of the elections."
Military and Bush administration officials had predicted previously that attacks would intensify before the Iraq elections, but yesterday's comments were among the most pointed to date about the challenge posed by the insurgency.
Powell and Abizaid expressed more caution than had Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, about the prospect for free elections by the end of January. Neither said the Sunni Triangle, a hotbed of the insurgency, would be under control by then.
Powell referred to securing the right conditions for elections as a goal, saying: "I think what we have to shoot for is to make sure we bring the Sunni Triangle under control so we can have full, free, fair, open elections in which the entire country has a chance to participate.
"It doesn't mean that there won't be insurgents who try to disrupt this polling station or that polling station or cause trouble in this community or that community," he said.
This will be "a tough task," Powell said. "Prime Minister Allawi will have to see what the situation is at the end of the year and make a judgment as to whether or not he is confident enough in being able to move forward. It's a decision he'll make in consultation with the United Nations. "
Abizaid said, "I can't predict 100 percent that all areas will be available for complete, free, fair and peaceful elections. I assume that there will be certain areas of the country that will have to be fought over in order to have the elections take place."
But allowing elections to proceed without all areas being able to take part would raise questions about their credibility, as Powell acknowledged.
"It has to be seen as a comprehensive, full, free and fair election in order to get the kind of credibility that we want it to have," Powell said.
Analysts have said that keeping volatile Sunni areas out of the elections would serve to deepen distrust among minority Sunnis about how much influence they would retain in a democratic Iraq.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the BBC recently that credible elections could not be held under the current conditions. Although U.N. staff members are supposed to help prepare for the elections, they now have only a skeleton operation in Iraq because no country has offered a security force to protect them.
Powell said an offensive is under way to gain control of the Sunni Triangle, including in Fallujah, a hotbed of the insurgency. He said it "remains to be seen how successful we will be."