washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > The Gulf > Iraq

Military Leaders Cautious on Iraqi Vote

Rumsfeld and Abizaid Warn of Period of Political Uncertainty, Continued Violence After Elections

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page A14

U.S. military authorities warned yesterday that the elections in Iraq will be followed by a period of political uncertainty and continued insurgent violence.

In statements to reporters, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. military authority in the Persian Gulf region, cautioned that Sunday's vote is only for a national assembly and that well more than a month and possibly two months will be required for new ministers to be selected and confirmed.

Iraqi candidate Fatah Sheikh campaigns in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. Remarks by military leaders appeared to lower expectations that the elections will bring peace. (Ghaith Abdul-ahad -- Getty Images)

They predicted that militants, many of them directed by former members of Saddam Hussein's government, will remain intent on fighting even after the elections in hopes of disrupting the move toward democracy.

"We have to recognize what -- how determined the people we're up against are," Rumsfeld said. "So one has to expect that the level of violence will either stay where it is, or go up or down modestly during this period, as they attempt to prevent from happening that which is going to happen."

The remarks appeared meant to lower expectations that the elections will quickly lead to peace and order in the embattled country. The Bush administration has hailed the vote as a watershed event, depicting many of the attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and those associated with Iraq's interim government as designed to intimidate voters and block the elections. But the Pentagon has continued to gird for a long conflict.

Appearing with Rumsfeld and Abizaid at a brief news conference on Capitol Hill, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the two men had provided a similarly sober assessment of the post-election period to about 20 senators during an earlier two-hour, closed-door briefing. Warner said he had urged the Pentagon officials to make their views public.

"The period of aftermath of the elections is fraught with uncertainty, and we should prepare the American people for as many eventualities as could possibly happen," the senator said.

Warner noted that after 30 years of Hussein's repressive rule, Iraqis are likely to be slow to place confidence in whatever new government emerges -- "which is, again, not the final government, but an interim" one.

"Very clearly," he added, Rumsfeld and Abizaid "explained to us we could anticipate a level of increased insurgency in this period of time and increased difficulty in trying to continue the good work that's been done to train all segments of the security forces."

Under the Iraqi plan, voters will be electing members of a transitional national assembly. The assembly, in turn, will select a president and two deputies. Those three will then pick a prime minister, and the prime minister will recommend cabinet ministers.

Outlining these steps, Rumsfeld said that each will take time. Certification of the national vote, for example, will likely last "a couple of weeks," he said.

The process of selecting ministers, he said, is sure to involve considerable negotiating among assembly members. "Then the ministers have to get into office," he said, "and gather people around them" who, in a number of cases, will displace those who have been serving in the ministries under the current interim government. "So now you've got some turbulence in these ministries."

Finally, Rumsfeld said, the newly constituted ministries will have to work out operating relationships with one another.

"You're looking -- I would guess, well, into March, possibly into April, for these things to sort themselves out," he said.

The number of insurgent attacks in Iraq declined sharply in the fall after the U.S. assault in early November on rebel strongholds in Fallujah, according to U.S. military figures. But while down from a peak of more than 130 attacks a day, the current level of just under 50 has continued to take a significant toll in U.S. and Iraqi lives and sustain a widespread sense of insecurity.

"We should anticipate that after the elections, the people that desire to derail the process of a new future for Iraq will continue to fight and continue to fight hard," Abizaid said.

Abizaid confirmed that a U.S. plan exists to bolster development of Iraq's fledgling security forces by shifting a portion of the U.S. force in the country from combat operations to training missions soon.

"Clearly, in the post-election environment in Iraq, we intend to increase the level of our training and partnership with the Iraqi security forces," he said.

But the general declined to provide details about the number of U.S. troops involved in the shift, the timing of the move or how the intensified training is intended to evolve. He said such details are being worked out by his staff and Rumsfeld's.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company