Elections in Iraq will be held as planned early next year, but getting there will be a violent process, top U.S. military and diplomatic officials told members of Congress yesterday.
"We know that the enemy will come at us very, very tough," said Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. military operations in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. "But we also know that we've got the military capacity to deal with anything that may come our way."
Speaking to reporters after a closed-door briefing with senators, John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said preparations for the elections continue despite the recent surge in violence, in which more than 1,000 U.S. troops were wounded in intense fighting in Baghdad and in the Sunni Triangle. "If our plans for training and equipping the armed forces of Iraq continue as they have been up until now," he said, "security conditions should be adequate for the satisfactory conduct of those elections by the end of January."
With insurgent activity high in several major provincial capitals, such as Samarra, Baqubah and Ramadi, officials say privately that it is increasingly clear that some sort of offensive, probably military and political, will have to be mounted in the coming months to establish conditions under which the vote can take place.
"Plans are being made to do this, to squeeze these towns," a senior State Department official, who would speak about future operations only on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday. But less clear is how the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies plan to deal with the turbulent western town of Fallujah, not a provincial capital, or the huge Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad called Sadr City, where U.S. aircraft conducted airstrikes yesterday.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) said that plans to retake several Iraqi cities were implied in the Capitol Hill briefings but not discussed explicitly. Rather, the officials -- the administration delegation included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage -- simply stated that it would be impossible to hold elections in Iraq while several major cities are in the hands of insurgents.
Reaction to the briefings -- first given to the Senate, then the House -- split along party lines.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) called the session he attended "frank and informative." He said that listening to Abizaid "instills a lot of confidence in his leadership."
"Everything seems to be on course toward January being the time for elections," said another Michigan Republican, Joe Knollenberg. "There is a huge threat of additional problems between now and January, but things are generally positive."
Attendees described the mood of the briefings as somber and straightforward. "There's no news in the fact that the security situation is pretty tough," said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a former Marine helicopter pilot. "We've known that."
Bartlett said that the officials and the legislators commented that the media report just the negative side of Iraq, ignoring the positive. For example, he said, there is a positive side to Iraqis still wanting to become police officers despite attacks on recruiting depots. "In spite of the fact that car bombs go off while they're standing on line to join the police, they're still doing it," he said.
Most of all, Bartlett said, he was struck that lawmakers no longer argue at such events about the decision to invade Iraq. "I think there's a resignation that even if you think it was dumb of us to get there, we're there. So what do we do?"
Democrats were less laudatory. "I was appalled by his demeanor," Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii) said about Rumsfeld. "Secretary Rumsfeld is entering a new phase of his existence -- a fantasy world." He said he fears that the U.S. war in Iraq is becoming "a massive failure" in which U.S. service members will pay the price for poor political judgment.
Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) said after the briefing that he was "more concerned about Iraq walking out than I was walking in." He said that he was especially disturbed by Rumsfeld's comments about the coalition and that he came away believing that Rumsfeld does not understand the basic trend in Iraq is that the coalition is not expanding. "I don't think they're coming to grips with the fact that the coalition is growing smaller."
Meek also said he does not believe that Iraqi elections will be held as scheduled, in late January.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the briefing on the U.S. position in Iraq reminded him of a bull-riding rodeo that he recently attended in Kansas City. "We're still on the bull," he said somberly.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.