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Friday, December 10

U.S. military preparing restive Iraqi province for elections

By Gordon Trowbridge | Army Times

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - The top U.S. officer in Iraq's rebellious Anbar province believes that the region can be settled and brought into national elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

``The goal is to get everyone of age and eligible to vote registered - no ifs, ands or buts,'' Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an interview Thursday.

Anbar, which stretches from west of Baghdad all the way to the Syrian border, has been a hotbed of insurgent unrest. Military officials said it is probably the toughest challenge to the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Sattler said there is ``no doubt'' that Anbar is somewhat behind the other Iraqi provinces in terms of being ready for elections. ``But we have some ideas on extending the registration period,'' he said. ``We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there, but it can be done.''

U.S. officials hope that national elections in January will give a new legitimacy to the interim Iraqi government, put Iraq on the road to a democratic future and allow U.S. troops to begin leaving.

But that plan may fall apart without significant political participation from the nation's Sunni Muslim minority. Anbar's population is largely Sunni, a group that was favored under Saddam Hussein but is likely to lose power in elections to the Shiite Muslims, Iraq's largest demographic group.

A number of Sunni groups and prominent Sunni leaders have called for postponing the elections. Other groups, including an influential clergy organization, have called on Sunnis to boycott the vote, saying no election held under U.S. occupation could be legitimate.

Sattler said he is considering extending an invitation to leaders in Ramadi, the provincial capital, to visit the Shiite city of Najaf. This summer, U.S. forces there defeated the militia of rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, damaging much of the city.

But now, Sattler said, reconstruction has erased much of the damage. Businesses have reopened and residents eagerly anticipate the chance to vote in January.

U.S. troops are largely absent from the streets, replaced by Iraqi police and soldiers, he said.

``We are a distant supporting cast in Najaf, and we'd like to show ... the local leadership in Ramadi that this is the way we want it to be, and this is where we can get (to),'' Sattler said.

But he said breaking down Sunni opposition must begin in Fallujah, where U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to allow the return of civilians by Dec. 24.

``When they come back, it's make or break,'' Sattler said. ``If U.S. and Iraqi officials can move quickly to rebuild damaged infrastructure and make good on claims by those whose homes were damaged, residents will see that they have a stake in the nation's future.

``If we don't do that, then we haven't gotten beyond tactical victory in the town.''

Marine engineers say much work remains to make Fallujah safe for civilians. Tons of rubble and debris must be cleared, a job due to start Saturday. Standing water is being pumped from a number of areas and Iraqi officials are just beginning to assess the job of restoring electric service, according to Navy Rear Adm. Raymond Alexander, chief of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group.

U.S. and Iraqi military leaders and Iraq's interim government have designed an elaborate plan for the return of civilians, one they hope will satisfy residents without allowing insurgents back into the city.

The government will declare sections of the city cleared for residents, who will be directed to one of five entry checkpoints on Fallujah's outskirts. Sattler said heads of households will be allowed in first, after they show identification proving they are residents of the city.

Officials will use a set of identification tests already in use on Iraqis detained by U.S. forces. These tests - fingerprinting, a scan of the eye's iris and a photograph - will be compared against a database of known or suspected terrorists.

``On the surface, it may seem heavy-handed,'' said Maj. Fran Piccoli, a Marine spokesman. ``But the purpose is to keep the people of Fallujah safe.''

Sattler, criticized in November for declaring that the battle of Fallujah had ``broken the back'' of the insurgency, said he still believes that the assault badly damaged the insurgents.

Sattler said the level of attacks - not just in the Fallujah area, but across Iraq - has decreased in recent days, although he pointed out that rain and cooler temperatures also played a role in that decline. But he contends that the capture of about 400 weapons storage points in Fallujah, along with sites where roadside and car bombs were built, will damage the insurgency as its supplies elsewhere in the country are exhausted.

``The worst case,'' Sattler said, ``is that the insurgency starts to lose its effectiveness. The best case is these folks (insurgents) become disenchanted and say, `Hey let's get on the winning team.'''