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U.S. Faces New Military Challenges As Vote Nears

Arab League Pressed To Get Sunnis to Polls

By Robin Wright and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A10

President Bush yesterday rebutted pessimistic assessments that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, as the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. troops are facing a new challenge from insurgents who have started deploying larger and deadlier bombs over the past two weeks in the run-up to Iraq's first democratic elections.

Bush yesterday said the Jan. 30 elections will be "such an incredibly hopeful experience" for Iraqis and that the United States and its Iraqi allies are "making great progress."


Campaign posters in Baghdad promote Iraq's Jan. 30 elections. The Bush administration is urging the Arab League and Sunni leaders to mobilize Sunni voters. (Zohra Bensemra -- Reuters)

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Yet, amid concerns about the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, the Pentagon plans to dispatch retired Gen. Gary E. Luck to assess training efforts and make recommendations about accelerating the process, because a functioning Iraqi military is at the heart of a U.S. exit strategy.

With only three weeks until the elections, the United States is also beefing up its diplomatic efforts to make sure the elections are seen as credible. To ensure a large turnout by Sunni Muslims, considered a key test of the elections' legitimacy, the Bush administration is pressing the Arab League and reluctant Sunni leaders throughout the Middle East for a last-ditch effort to help mobilize Sunni voters, according to U.S. officials.

In addition, Washington is helping to mobilize an 11-nation team of monitors, led by Canada and including Muslims, to oversee the polling in an effort to win international support for the outcome as free and fair, even if large numbers of the pivotal Sunni minority boycott the elections, Western diplomats said yesterday.

The latest U.S. efforts come at the crucial first juncture in a year of tests -- including two national elections and the writing of a constitution -- that will determine whether the U.S. intervention in Iraq can result in the creation of a stable new democracy, U.S. officials say.

"The job of the United States military is to do the best job we can to give every citizen the best chance they can to vote and to participate," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday. He acknowledged that the transition to democracy is "hard" and said the only recourse is "to be aggressive in the spread of freedom . . . to stand with those brave citizens in Iraq who want to vote. And that's exactly what we will do."

Bush said 14 of 18 provinces appear to be "relatively calm," noting that the election process is introducing a "new way of life" that is being embraced by the majority of "brave Iraqis."

Michael O'Hanlon, a military affairs specialist with the Brookings Institution, said yesterday: "The president has no choice but to be optimistic. Anyone in his shoes at this point would hope that the election process could put us on a better track in Iraq, and that's certainly a theoretical possibility. But the weight of evidence is against it."

On Thursday, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser of President George H.W. Bush, said in a speech that he has grown pessimistic about the prospects for stability and democracy in Iraq, a view increasingly expressed by foreign policy figures in both parties. Scowcroft predicted "an incipient civil war."

At a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez said the insurgents' roadside bombs -- "all being built more powerfully, with more explosive effort in a smaller number" -- represent a new tactic against U.S.-led coalition forces. The devices already proved deadly this week when seven soldiers were killed after their heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit a bomb, overturned and caught fire.

Rodriguez, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insurgents are assembling the bombs by stringing together more artillery shells and ordnance, a variation of the smaller bombs that have more focused firepower.

The administration is also clearly concerned about the program to train Iraqi forces. In Baghdad, a senior officer with the U.S. military command said the initiative for Luck's mission came from the Pentagon and appeared to have been spurred by last month's request for more troops by Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the two top military commanders in charge of Iraq. The request was prompted by their determination that Iraq's own fledgling forces would not be adequate to ensure security for the elections in the face of the persistent insurgency.

"I have the impression they're frustrated in Washington with the fact that we had to increase force levels," the officer said. "I think they want to see if there are ways of accelerating development of the Iraqi forces." Although Iraqi security forces have been fighting alongside U.S. forces, they have taken heavy casualties, lost members to intimidation and shown widely disparate capabilities.


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