Dexter Filkins / The New York Times – 2004-09-19 20:56:52
BAGHDAD (September 19, 2004 ) — Faced with a growing insurgency and a January deadline for national elections, American commanders in Iraq say they are preparing operations to open up rebel-held areas, especially Falluja, the restive city west of Baghdad now under control of insurgents and Islamist groups.
A senior American commander said the military intended to take back Falluja and other rebel areas by year’s end. The commander did not set a date for an offensive but said that much would depend on the availability of Iraqi military and police units, which would be sent to occupy the city once the Americans took it.
The American commander suggested that operations in Falluja could begin as early as November or December, the deadline the Americans have given themselves for restoring Iraqi government control across the country.
“We need to make a decision on when the cancer of Falluja is going to be cut out,” the American commander said. “We would like to end December at local control across the country.”
“Falluja will be tough,” he said.
At a minimum, the American commander said, local conditions would have to be secure for voting to take place in the country’s 18 provincial capitals for the election to be considered legitimate. American forces have lost control over at least one provincial capital, Ramadi, in Al Anbar Province, and have only a tenuous grip over a second, Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad. Other large cities in the region, like Samarra, are largely in the hands of insurgents.
Senior officials at the United Nations are concerned that legitimate elections might not be possible unless the security conditions here change. Violence against American forces surged last month to its highest level since the war began last year, with an average of 87 attacks per day. A string of deadly attacks in the past month continued Saturday, with a car bombing that killed at least 19 people in the northern city of Kirkuk. [Page 6.]
At the same time, the Americans and the Iraqi interim government appear to be giving negotiations to disarm the rebels a final chance. Members of the Mujahedeen Shura, the eight-member council in control of Falluja, said they were planning to come to Baghdad on Sunday to meet with Iraqi officials to talk about disarming the rebels and opening the city to Iraqi government control.
“Although the Americans have lied many times, we are ready to start negotiations with the Iraqi government,” said Hajji Qasim Muhammad Abdul Sattar, a member of the shura.
Dr. Ahmed Hardan, a Falluja doctor who will take part in the negotiations, said that at least some members on the council might be willing to strike a deal with the Americans.
Striking a Deal
Under the proposal to be discussed, Dr. Hardan said, the guerrillas would turn over their heavy weapons and allow a military force gathered from around Al Anbar Province to enter the city. That unit would replace the Falluja Brigade, the local militia set up after the fighting in April and which was composed almost entirely of insurgents and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. It was routed by the insurgents, and the Iraqi government disbanded it this month.
The Iraqi government will also demand that the insurgents turn over their heavy weapons and that foreign fighters leave the city.
Similar negotiations, also at the threat of force, appear to have borne some fruit in the city of Samarra. American military forces entered the town last week for the first time in months and are hoping they can ultimately restore Iraqi government control there before the elections.
Preparations for the Vote
The driving force behind the coming military operations is concern that under the current security conditions, voting will not be possible in much of the so-called Sunni triangle, the area generally north and west of Baghdad that has generated most of the violence against the American enterprise here.
Still, Iraqi and United Nations officials here say they have begun preparations to hold the elections across the country despite the chaotic security environment.
The Independent Iraqi Electoral Commission, set up here after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28, has begun preparing for the mammoth task of registering an estimated 12 million Iraqi voters, beginning Nov. 1 in about 600 offices around the country, officials said.
Iraqi officials say it will be necessary to keep those offices open for at least six weeks while the registrations are gathered, requiring thousands of police officers and possibly troops to protect them. Those plans have not yet been completed, but American and British officials said the primary responsibility for providing ballot security will fall to the Iraqi police, whose record against the insurgents in southern and central Iraq has been spotty at best.
Iraqi and United Nations officials say they are banking that enthusiasm for the elections among ordinary Iraqis will help persuade insurgents and other skeptical Iraqis to allow election workers into most areas of the Sunni triangle.
The initial signs have not been encouraging. For example, the Association of Muslim Scholars, the country’s largest group of Sunni clerics, said last week that it had decided against taking part in the elections.
“As long as we are under military occupation, honest elections are impossible,” said Sheik Abdul Satar Abdul Jabbar, a member of the association, which represents about 3,000 Sunni mosques in the region.
“People will not come out to vote in this environment,” Sheik Jabbar said. “If the election goes forward anyway, the body that will be elected will not represent the country.”
Indeed, the violence in Iraq is giving rise to concerns that voting held under the present conditions, with a possible large-scale boycott by the Sunni Arabs, will render the results of such an election suspect in the eyes of many Iraqis. If that happens, some Iraqis say, the stage could be set for even more violence.
“Bad elections will open wounds rather than heal them,” said Ghassan al-Atiyyah, the director of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, an independent governance group here. “If the Sunnis do not vote, then you could end up with a polarized Parliament that could lead to civil war.”
The senior American military official suggested that Falluja, believed to be a haven for insurgents and terrorists, was in a category all its own, and that while securing other cities like Ramadi and Samarra might be achieved with relatively little violence, Falluja could require a major military assault.
The exact timing of an assault on the city would probably depend on whether there were sufficient numbers of Iraqi soldiers who could join in the attack and, more important, take over the city after the Americans fought their way in.
Training for an Assault
Thousands of Iraqi police officers and soldiers are taking part in a huge American-led training effort, supported by an $800 million project to build bases and training camps. At the moment, American officials say there are about 40,000 soldiers in the Iraqi National Guard, the force most likely be deployed for action in Falluja.
Many of those soldiers do not have adequate equipment, and they have little or no combat experience. American commanders are concerned that the experience of April not be repeated, when the Iraqi security forces largely disintegrated in the face of Shiite and Sunni uprisings.
With preparations for the elections under way, American forces have recently been stepping up military operations in areas where they had ceded control to insurgents. American aircraft have repeatedly struck targets in Falluja in recent weeks. Usually, commanders have said the airstrikes were aimed at hide-outs used by the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who has claimed responsibility for several of the deadliest car bombings here.
On Friday, American forces started an operation in Ramadi, another city in insurgent control.
An offensive on Falluja and in other cities in the Sunni triangle that have slipped out of the grip of American forces would undoubtedly test the political will of the interim government and of its prime minister, Ayad Allawi. An initial assault by American marines on Falluja was halted in April as Iraqi anger grew at the death of as many as 600 Iraqis in the fighting.
At the time, Marine commanders said that they were perhaps two days away from gaining control of the interior of the city, and that they were ordered to halt by the political leadership in Washington.
A second assault on Falluja could be expected to be at least as deadly as the first one. Witnesses from inside the city say the mujahedeen groups are preparing for a big fight, in part by burying large bombs along the main routes into the city.
But the American commander said he felt confident that things would be different this time, largely because now, unlike in April, there was a sovereign Iraqi government, and one that seemed willing to absorb the political storm that such an assault was likely to set off.
“I am rather confident we are not going to take on something as focused and important as Falluja without the endorsement and full understanding of what we are going to get ourselves into and the support of the Iraqi interim government,” the American official said.
The American commander said cities like Ramadi and Samarra had been allowed to slip into insurgents’ hands largely by default, as the Americans began to concentrate their limited resources on other areas, like protecting the new government and critical pieces of infrastructure.
“Offensive operations based on intelligence were a lower priority,” the commander said.
Counting on Elections
For all of their worries, Iraqi and United Nations workers say they are pushing ahead with plans to hold voting across the country in January. To help the Iraqis with the job, the United Nations has dispatched a team led by Carlos Valenzuela, who has overseen 15 elections in places including Liberia, Haiti, Angola and Cambodia.
Mr. Valenzuela said he was worried about the Iraqi elections, especially if the violence prevents candidates from campaigning and voters from registering. But he said in other violence-plagued countries, a wide array of people usually want to vote, largely because almost most everyone is unhappy with the status quo.
“People realize that they are stuck in a situation and that they have to move on to something else,” Mr. Valenzuela said. “Elections can help achieve that.”
Some Iraqis, too, believe that the prospect of elections could help transform the security environment here, as people begin to realize that the elections are inevitable and that they will be honest and fair.
One of them is Abdul Hussein Hindawi, the chairman of the Iraqi election commission. Mr. Hindawi believes that even the Sunni Arabs, who thrived under Saddam Hussein but who now find themselves a minority in the government, may finally decide that an election is something they do not want to miss.
“They look to their interests, first of all,” Mr. Hindawi said. An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Falluja for this article.
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