The United States and Iraq are crafting a two-pronged plan to prepare for Iraq's first democratic election in January, combining a fall military offensive to evict insurgents from volatile areas with creative approaches to ensure that voters will participate in the historic poll, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
To address deteriorating security, the plan calls for U.S. forces to lead a campaign to clean out insurgents in three key provincial capitals and Fallujah, opening up the cities for Iraqi forces to move in and retain control to prepare for balloting, officials said.
The Washington Post's Thomas E. Ricks discusses the U.S. military's planned offensive before the January elections in Iraq.
The goal is to use U.S. military muscle decisively but briefly, and then leave to avoid becoming targets or fueling further anti-U.S. sentiment, say U.S. and Iraqi officials. While the United States is confident it can win a military battle, the bigger challenge is creating an Iraqi government presence to prevent key areas from reverting into chaos -- a problem after a U.S. offensive in Fallujah last spring.
"We are still considering an active plan, and I think it's a solid, good plan," Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said last week in an interview at the end of a week-long visit to Washington and the United Nations. The approach would involve the simultaneous use of political and military pressure, he said, and would be launched before December. He added that he could not discuss details yet but is confident that "it will bring the desired results."
The timing of stepped-up military operations will depend largely on how quickly Iraqi troops are trained and available, said officials, who insist a lag in preparing Iraqi forces -- and not the Nov. 2 U.S. election -- is the determining factor.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said the planning is aimed at getting them past several major hurdles over the next four months, beginning with the possible escalation of violence as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts in mid-October, including a drive that month to start registering voters, and ending with the January elections.
In their effort to stick to the electoral schedule, officials say they will strive to put an Iraqi face on the election preparations, with the United Nations and U.S. groups playing background support roles. That, they hope, will lessen the potential for attacks that could disrupt voter registration, the campaign or the election itself.
In planning meant to outmaneuver insurgents, for example, voter registration will be held at 600 food distribution centers where Iraqis pick up their monthly food packages. The goal is to integrate the electoral process into places that would generate a backlash against insurgents if they were attacked, U.S. officials say.
Both U.S. and Iraqi officials say this first national election is so pivotal to the political transition -- and finally creating a government not selected by foreigners -- that the outcome is less important than simply ensuring the vote is held.
"We are fully aware that we have to take political and military and security and police action to bring these three additional provinces under government control and to create conditions where people will be free to register, and free and able to vote when the time comes," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in New York on Friday.
One of the biggest challenges for Allawi and his U.S. allies may come at Ramadan, which last year was accompanied by a major spike in the Iraqi insurgency and was one of the toughest months of the occupation for U.S. forces. American commanders fear a similar escalation this Ramadan, especially with both the U.S. and Iraqi elections approaching. Preparations are underway, with Pentagon planners exploring how many additional troops could be mustered quickly in a worst-case scenario.
But the U.S. military is also bracing for its own offensive to help foster conditions for elections, especially in the turbulent provincial capitals near Baghdad -- Ramadi to the west, Samarra to the north, and Baqubah to the northeast, officials said. Fallujah, a city Allawi called "the eye of the storm," will be the biggest hurdle.
Iraq's three-month-old interim government intends to play a growing role in these military operations, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. Although Allawi expressed frustration with the slow-vetting procedures in the recruitment of Iraq's new army, he said he is pushing to expedite training of new units.
Over the last three months of this year, Iraq generally hopes to triple the number of all security forces who have completed training, including police, from 45,000 to 135,000. "We are moving now rapidly, we are moving progressively, we have some good units in operations now," Allawi said.