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.

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.

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."

Indeed, many Iraqis worry that the elections will be dominated by five main political parties that have taken increasing control of the country's affairs.

Potential candidates, have worries, too - some are fearful that as soon as they declare their intentions, they and their families will become targets of anti- election forces.

The elections are essential to calming the country, Iraqi experts say, since they will replace an appointed government with one chosen by the people - removing a rationale for a strengthening insurgency.

Iraqi officials and US leaders insist the elections will take place on time - by Jan. 31. But other experts caution that, with most Iraqis still knowing nothing about election plans and other questions unresolved, it will be more important to get the elections right than to hold them on time.

"If we can hold inclusive, fair, and open elections, this will calm the masses and provide a sense of hope that Iraq can move forward," says Hatem Mukhlis, head of the Iraqi National Movement, a pro-democracy group that plans to field candidates. "It's a big if. Right now I'd say the answer is no."

A lack of transparency on how elections will be organized and security concerns are high on the list of problems, he says.

But another worry is the "hijacking" of Iraq's fledgling political process by a few dominant powers, including some he says are acting primarily in the interests of next-door neighbor Iran.

Mr. Mukhlis says his concerns that Islamists backed by Iran could end up dominating the country are not new, but are looking more plausible. Referring to a meeting he had with President Bush before returning to Iraq from exile in the US, he says, "I told the president, 'Do we really want to take Iraq out of Saddam's hands only to hand it to Iran on a silver platter?' "

That could be one result of focusing on a date for the elections rather than on solid preparations, he says.

Other Iraqi political leaders say they fear the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has spoken of excluding trouble spots like the city of Fallujah from the elections, is doing so as part of a plan to enhance its own chances of electoral victory and thus retaining power.

"No one is talking yet of boycotting these elections, but what we do have is the prime minister talking about excluding what he calls troubled areas but which happen to be places where his government does not enjoy popularity," says Wamidh Nadmi, a Baghdad political scientist who is organizing a "nationalist" list for the elections.

In this environment, the most important thing to guarantee any elections' legitimacy, Mr. Nadmi says, would be neutral international observers.

He says neither the government nor the US would be seen as unbiased organizers and guarantors of the elections - although he does suggest that perhaps former president Jimmy Carter could be the right leader of an acceptable observer team.

Sadoun al-Dulame, whose center released Thursday's poll, says he's seeing an erosion of public enthusiasm for elections. And like Mr. Nadmi, he wonders if the government might not prefer turmoil.

"When things are in confusion and unsafe, the opportunity is better for the government to restrict information and so restrict alternatives," he says. "I'm afraid they are trying to go for a partial election as a guarantee to hold on to their position."

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