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Russia Casts Public Doubt On Iraqi Elections --> Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo) 7 December 2004 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a meeting today with Iraq's interim prime minister that he "cannot imagine" how free and fair elections could be held as planned in Iraq, given the fact that the country is under what Putin called total occupation by foreign troops.

Putin, who met with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at the Kremlin today, said Russia was watching "with deep concern" what he called the "difficult processes" taking place in Iraq.

"I honestly say that I cannot imagine how elections can be organized under a full occupation of the country by foreign troops," Putin said.

Allawi, who is on a three-day visit to Russia, told Swiss daily "Le Temps" today that the elections set for 30 January could be phased over a period of two or three weeks to ensure everyone gets the chance to vote under secure conditions.

U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech to U.S. Marines in California today that they can expect further violence in Iraq ahead of the elections, which he said "will proceed as planned."

Meanwhile, Iraq's main Shi'ite political parties have reportedly formed a wide-ranging alliance to participate in the elections.

The announcement came late yesterday from Hossain al-Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist.

Al-Shahristani said the group -- called the United Iraqi Alliance -- comprises about 20 political groups, including non-Shi'ites.