BAGHDAD, Nov. 30 -- The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq said Tuesday that security conditions here would improve enough in the coming months to allow national elections to proceed in January as scheduled, and he suggested that the country's Sunni Muslim minority would likely abandon plans to boycott the voting once it became clear it would not be postponed.
Speaking to foreign reporters over lunch at the U.S. Embassy inside the walled compound known as the Green Zone, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte gave the clearest indication yet that the Bush administration would not allow a delay in the Jan. 30 vote, an essential step toward establishing the first broadly accepted government in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But his assurances came at the end of a month in which 135 U.S. troops died in Iraq, matching the highest one-month total, in April, and underscoring how much work must be done to stabilize the country before the voting can take place.
Negroponte says Sunnis are not likely to boycott.
"There's a couple of months to go," said Negroponte, emphasizing that the violence threatening the elections is centered largely in western Iraq. "Steps are being taken to improve the situation, the security situation there, and they will continue. And every effort is going to be made to improve and better the security situation as much as possible."
Negroponte's comments served as a U.S. response to more than a dozen Sunni organizations that in recent days have threatened to boycott the voting and thereby potentially undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis. The January election, the first of three planned for next year, is intended to select a National Assembly that would choose an interim government and draft a new constitution.
Many Sunni Arabs, who account for roughly 20 percent of Iraq's population but exercised extraordinary political power under Hussein, are calling for the vote to be delayed until U.S. and Iraqi forces are able to tame the violence concentrated mostly in Sunni areas. But the long-oppressed Shiite Muslim majority has rejected those appeals, and Negroponte warned Tuesday that Sunni parties should consider how much they stand to lose if they follow through with their threat.
"I think once they realize that the elections will go forward as planned, then they are going to have to deal with that reality," Negroponte said. "Do they want to really opt out of an electoral process that is going to pick a National Assembly that drafts the constitution and shapes the political future of their country? Or do they wish to be represented in some way so they have a seat at the table?"
The debate over the timing of elections has overshadowed U.S. military operations here in recent days and brought into sharp focus Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Although the roughly 15 political organizations pushing for postponement draw support from various religious and ethnic groups, most are identified with the Sunnis.
The country's two ethnic Kurdish parties, among the most staunch U.S. allies here, have also publicly endorsed postponement on the grounds that much of Iraq is insufficiently secure for fair balloting to take place. The Kurds are highly organized after more than a decade running a U.S.-protected autonomous region in northeastern Iraq. But they worry that a Sunni boycott would undermine the vote's legitimacy, and both minorities fear the potential for the Shiites to sweep elections and rule with little regard for minority interests.
Hamid Bayati, an official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party, said he was heartened by Negroponte's assurance that the elections would proceed as set out in what is known as Iraq's transitional law. He said the Kurds among all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups are the most prepared for elections, while acknowledging that Sunni parties are the farthest behind in preparing effective organizations. "I don't see this as a clear division between Sunnis and Shiites. Some Sunnis will participate, and maybe some Shiites will not," Bayati said. "The Shiites will respect the rights of others. But this is a democracy, and democracy is always the rule of the majority."
Violence in the Sunni-populated region north of Baghdad continued Tuesday.
A car bomb exploded in a busy marketplace near a U.S. military convoy in the oil town of Baiji, killing at least four people and wounding more than 20 others, including two U.S. soldiers. Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad, sits within the area known as the Sunni Triangle, a region once loyal to Hussein and now the heartland of resistance to the U.S. occupation. Another car bomb detonated in western Baghdad shortly before noon, wounding five U.S. soldiers.
In recent weeks, U.S. forces pushed into several insurgent-held areas, most notably the city of Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, which had served as a sanctuary and staging area for Iraqi rebels and foreigners who have arrived since the U.S.-led invasion to fight the Americans.
Although the U.S. military says more than 1,200 guerrillas were killed in the fighting in and around Fallujah, along with more than 50 Marines, U.S. officers have also acknowledged that many likely escaped the besieged city and may be regrouping.
"We got rid of the terrorism, and our will increases by the return of the people to their cities," Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Tuesday before traveling to Jordan to meet with Iraqi exiles there in an effort to generate interest in the elections.
Negroponte said conditions in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces were safe enough for elections to be held.
The process of identifying Iraq's eligible voters, estimated to number about 14 million, is taking place now in most of the country through the monthly food-distribution system established during Hussein's rule.
Iraqi parties have until Dec. 10 to submit lists of candidates for the 275-member National Assembly, and Iraqi election officials said that more than 230 party lists and individuals have been registered. Negroponte emphasized Tuesday that missing the Jan. 30 date for voting would disrupt the rest of the 2005 election calendar, which includes an October referendum on the new constitution and the selection of a permanent government by Dec. 15.
"I wouldn't necessarily predict there'd be a one-to-one relationship between a successful conduct of the elections and a diminution of the violence," Negroponte said. "But I think it would be an important step. I think it would demonstrate at least to the fence-sitters, those who have been wondering about the political future of the country, that participating in the political process is the way to go."