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Thursday, September 23

Iraqi leader, Bush: Keep Iraqi elections on schedule

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are resolute on the next major step for Iraq: Hold Iraq's first elections on schedule in January despite an insurgency that threatens to derail them.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Allawi told lawmakers that delaying Iraq's elections would amount to a victory for the forces trying to unravel the country.

``Let me be absolutely clear,'' the former neurosurgeon and CIA collaborator said. ``Elections in Iraq will occur in January because Iraqis want elections on time. ...There would be no greater success for the terrorists if we delay.''

During an afternoon news conference with Allawi at the White House, Bush declared bluntly, ``The terrorists know that events in Iraq are reaching a decisive moment.''

Clearly, Allawi and Bush are reading from the same playbook: Paint as positive a picture of events on the ground as possible, and by all means stick with the political schedule.

Allowing the surging violence to delay the democratic process would confirm widespread fears that Iraq is slipping out of control.

But sticking with the plan - designed to conclude at the end of 2005 with Iraq's first fully and freely elected government - gives Bush objective successes he can point to despite recent spikes in attacks against U.S. troops.

``You can understand how hard it is and (still) believe we'll succeed,'' Bush said.

As violence escalated in Iraq over the spring and summer threatening the June transfer of sovereignty from U.S. authorities to Allawi's interim government, Bush opted for conducting the handoff two days early during a five-minute ceremony in a secret windowless bunker.

It was hardly a memorable moment for Iraqis, but it cleared a major hurdle.

That said, stealth is not an option with elections.

^Pushing ahead

Allawi acknowledged the upcoming elections ``may not be perfect,'' and Iraqis lined up to vote at the 30,000 polling places being set up are almost certain to attract violence.

Nevertheless, he said that with the help of the United Nations, Iraq is preparing the democratic infrastructure for what will be ``a giant step forward in Iraq's political evolution.''

Iraq's interim government has set up an electoral commission now preparing to begin voter registration sometime in mid-October. In November, the commission will launch a public information campaign to lay out the process for Iraqis.

Despite that, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has raised grave doubts that ``credible elections'' can be held on schedule.

Allawi acknowledged that violence might require excluding some regions in the restive Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad.

Iraq's Kurds in the north, who have run their own democratic government for a decade, and Iraq's Shiite majority in the south are both expected to participate in large numbers.

But holding partial elections runs the risk of further alienating the already volatile Sunnis who are waging much of the insurgency.

^Cleaning house

There is little doubt that sometime before the elections, Iraqi and U.S. forces will have to secure at least some of the cities, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, now run by insurgents.

And that's going to cost lives.

Spikes in the insurgency as those cities fell to radical Iraqis have meant corresponding surges in U.S. casualties, pushing the total for the 17-month-long campaign well over 1,000 in the first weeks of September.

April, when Sunni insurgents took Fallujah, was the war's deadliest month for the roughly 135,000 U.S. troops, with 135 killed.

In August, attacks against U.S. troops again surged - from about 1,600 the month before to 2,700.

Top Pentagon officials have said they want to bolster Iraqi forces significantly before trying to take back what have become ``no-go'' zones for U.S. troops.

Thus far, they maintain they do not need any more U.S. troops.

``I don't foresee a need for more American troops,'' said Army Gen. John Abizaid, top military commander in Iraq. ``But we can't discount it.''