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 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.
Allawi said he is now working closely with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, with whom he meets at least once a week. But the Iraqi leader made clear he has the last word on when and how to conduct offensives. "No operation takes place if I don't sanction it myself," he said.
To balance the military options, Allawi is also involved in discussions with tribal and other leaders from the Sunni triangle to persuade them not to aid the various insurgents, including remnants from Saddam Hussein's government, foreign fighters and Islamic extremists loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi.
"I say to them, if you want to be part and you want to run this country, then we have the elections. If you really represent the people of Iraq, January is coming and you can be elected by the people, and then you can decide what you want -- whether you want the multinational force or whether you want to make Iraq an Islamic state, whether you want to elect [Osama] bin Laden, it's up to you," Allawi said. "[But] you can't force issues on us; that's what Saddam did."
Since the June 28 handover of power from the U.S.-led occupation government, more Iraqis have been willing to provide the interim government and U.S. officials with information about where insurgents are hiding, Allawi said. "One of the reasons why the targeting is becoming much better, hitting the safe houses of the insurgents, is because . . . people are informing on these elements," he said.
In his radio address yesterday, President Bush said the United States stands with Iraqi government strategy "to surround and isolate enemy militias, reach out to the local population and negotiate from a position of strength." Bush acknowledged that "serious problems" remain in several cities but backed Allawi's contention that a combination of "decisive action and outreach to peaceful citizens is the most effective way to defeat the killers and secure the peace."
A key test of this strategy will come as the election season formally opens. On Oct. 15, Iraq will begin mailing out registration forms; eligible voters can turn them in at centers where Iraqis pick up monthly food packages from Nov. 1 until mid-December, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. Iraqi and U.S. officials are concerned that insurgents will target registration centers in the same way they have attacked police stations as they try to undermine the fragile new Iraqi government.
The election, to be held by Jan. 31, will create a national assembly, which will in turn pick a new government to replace Allawi's interim government appointed by U.S. and U.N. envoys. The assembly will also oversee the writing of a new national constitution.
In effect, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, a race is underway to see whether Iraqi forces can stabilize volatile areas after U.S. troops clean out insurgents -- and whether Iraqis will embrace the U.S.-designed transition plan -- both in just four months.
The danger, warn Iraq experts, is counting on Iraqi security forces. When a similar approach was tried on a smaller scale last spring, Iraqi security forces broke under the strain and a large percentage melted away, with some even turning on U.S. troops. The Marines ended up exiting Fallujah only after creating a new brigade of Iraqi fighters to take control of the city. When that unit began shooting at Americans, a Marine commander called the outcome a "fiasco."
The question now is whether Iraqi forces will prove more reliable and durable now. There are some positive signs. In fighting in Najaf last month, U.S. commanders said Iraqi units performed well. "We have some good units in operations now," Allawi said.
But in a new study released Friday, Middle East security analyst Anthony H. Cordesman charged the Pentagon overstated the size, quality and progress of Iraqi police and military forces. As many as half are of "uncertain loyalty and capability," he said. He concluded it would be at least a year, and perhaps as long as mid-2006, before Iraqi forces will be qualified to take over security missions from U.S. and coalition forces, permitting a major reduction in U.S. troop levels.
Another report issued Friday by Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said 27,000 Iraq security personnel -- out of the 100,000 identified by the Bush administration -- are sufficiently trained to be considered "minimally effective."
"I've got real doubts about these guys," said retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, former head of Middle Eastern Affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency. "I think the whole election thing is too soon," he said. "They're rushing it -- they don't have enough trained troops."