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US, Iraq weigh major new offensives

US and Iraqi officials consider the impact that campaigns to clear out rebel areas could have on elections slated for January.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2004



BAGHDAD

US and Iraqi officials are weighing a major military offensive into Iraq's strongholds of resistance against such factors as potential civilian casualties and preparedness of Iraqi forces to hold the areas after battle.

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But also part of the discussion is the impact an offensive to "clean out" the areas might have on prospects for January elections.

Removing insurgent influence from key provincial cities might improve chances of holding truly national elections, thus enhancing perceptions of the vote's legitimacy.

On the other hand, officials say, drawn-out fighting with high casualties and televised scenes of destruction could alienate ordinary Iraqis and push crucial factions - for example the Sunni minority, which dominates in many of the areas that would be targeted - to boycott the vote.

The military issue is just one that is putting a damper on enthusiasm for Iraq's first-ever democratic elections, which are to take place in no more than four months to select a new parliament and leadership.

A new survey released Thursday shows the percentage of Iraqis saying they would "definitely participate" in elections falling off sharply from July - even as a desire for elections remains very high.

In the survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, 68 percent of Iraqis questioned said they would definitely go to the polls when elections are held, down from 92 percent in July. Another 25 percent said they would "probably" vote, with lack of information, indifference, and security - in that order - cited as reasons that might keep them away.

The poll was released on a day of renewed violence in Iraq, including three bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 42 Iraqis - most of them children - and two US soldiers. The most deadly strike was at the site of the dedication of a new sewage system in the southern neighborhood of Al Ummal, where bombings apparently aimed at US troops on guard instead cut down dozens of children.

At a market not far from that bombing, the few shoppers perusing the stalls said security concerns and mistrust of officials organizing the vote have them leery.

"It's a good thing to be able to vote, but with all the troubles we're facing we don't feel very confident about it," says Afifa Abdullah, shopping for school uniforms with her daughters in the Al Bakar market. "Just today a bomb exploded near the girls' school, so I'm worried about that."

One man, shopping with family, says elections require a unified country, while all he hears is talk about parts of the country not participating or being excluded.

"Elections would fail," says Abdul Jelil, "because Iraq is living [with] too many divisions. The Kurds in the north already consider themselves separate, the Sunni triangle is going to be kept out, and the people in Sadr City [the Baghdad district that strongly supports anti-US occupation Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr] won't participate. That leaves what, Baghdad?" he adds, exaggerating, "and even people here won't vote as they won't feel safe."

Still, many Iraqis say it is a lack of information about the elections that concerns them most. "Oh, we're having elections, I hadn't heard!" jests Mr. Jelil's wife, Lubda Rafeek. "Who will the candidates be? How will I know where to go? Of course we want this chance to choose our own leaders, but so far all we know is that the ones already in there will want us to vote for them."

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