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Sunday, December 12

Fair vote possible in Anbar, top Marine says

By Gordon Trowbridge | Army Times

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - The U.S. military believes Iraq's rebellious Anbar province can be brought into national elections scheduled for January, the top U.S. officer in the province said.

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

The province is home to Fallujah, a former militant stronghold that was retaken by U.S. and Iraqi government forces in a weeklong offensive last month. Insurgents are also active in Ramadi, the other major city in the province. Both cities lie in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where Saddam Hussein drew much of his support.

Sattler said in an interview last week there is ``no doubt'' that Anbar is somewhat behind the other Iraqi provinces in registering voters. ``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.''

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have said the Iraqi national elections would be an important milestone. Rumsfeld said last week that from that point forward, Iraqis should gain confidence in their government and the government should become more capable of running its own affairs.

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 but is likely to lose power in elections to the Shiite Muslims. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the country's population.

Sattler said breaking down Sunni opposition must begin in Fallujah. The city is heavily damaged, and its residents, most of whom are living in camps outside the city, are anxious to return.

But that is going slower than hoped. U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped to begin as early as this week to allow the return of the city's more than 200,000 residents. But they said security, not the calendar, would drive their decisions. ``I wouldn't pay attention to any particular date,'' said Maj. Jeff Lipson, a Marine civil affairs officer. ``There may be dates that are thrown around, but there are other criteria. We are trying to convince the (interim Iraqi government) of why a later date would be better.''

On Sunday, warplanes hit targets in Fallujah, and troops clashed with insurgents.

Getting residents back to Fallujah is critical in helping to persuade ordinary Iraqis to throw in their lot with elections and the interim government, officers say. ``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,'' he said.

Marine engineers say much work remains to make the city safe for civilians. Tons of rubble and debris must be cleared. 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 a plan for the return of civilians, one they hope will satisfy residents without allowing insurgents into the city, Sattler said.

The government will declare sections of the city cleared for residents. 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. Francis Piccoli, a Marine spokesman. ``But the purpose is to keep the people of Fallujah safe.''

Private vehicles will be banned to protect against car bombs, Sattler said. Instead, buses will move residents to their neighborhoods.

Sattler, who last month said the Fallujah offensive had ``broken the back'' of the insurgency, said he still believes the assault badly damaged the insurgents.

``We don't want to be Pollyanna, or take credit for ending the insurgency,'' he said. ``But they put a lot of eggs in that one basket. The basket is crushed.''

Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, a Marine operations planner, said insurgent attacks have fallen by more than half in the Marines' area of operations.

``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.' ``