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Iraq: Debate Grows Over Whether To Hold Iraqi Poll Amid Security Problems

Holding elections are crucial for establishing a more popular-based Iraqi government able to guarantee the country's security without large numbers of international troops. But plans for a first round of polls in January are looking increasingly tenuous amid the current high level of insurgent violence. In recent days, U.S. officials have continued to maintain that national elections will be held in January. But others -- including the interim Iraqi president and the UN Secretary-General -- have suggested that the election date may have to be changed if the present security situation does not improve.

Prague, 17 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It is becoming increasingly difficult to judge from the public statements coming out of Washington, the UN, and Baghdad whether Iraq's January election date is firm or flexible.

U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly said that the polls will take place as scheduled.

"National elections are scheduled for January," Bush said during a campaign stop in Minnesota yesterday. "In Iraq, there's ongoing acts of violence. [But] freedom is on the march."

He and other top U.S. government officials say increased violence in the run-up to the elections is to be expected and can be contained by U.S.-led forces.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage assessed the situation this way as he visited the Czech Republic - a member of the international force in Iraq - on 15 October.

"We expect increasing violence [in Iraq] as we get towards the January election and, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if some of that violence is directed against our own [U.S. presidential] election on November 2nd," Armitage said.
The report says one possibility is that the country will achieve a tenuous stability. A second possibility is political fragmentation. A third is civil war.

But some top Iraqi government officials are indicating they have doubts about trying to hold elections under Iraq's current security conditions.

"I think it is a little premature to decide on [the timing of the elections]," Iraq's interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir said yesterday. "Our priority is to work on restoring security.... We want to hold the elections in a safe and secure environment."

Al-Yawir spoke a day after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also expressed concern over the security situation.

Appearing on 'the BBC World Service Interview Program', Annan said: "You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now."

The Iraqi president has previously said that the final decision on holding elections rests with the UN. The elections are being organized by an independent Iraqi commission created under UN guidance.

The UN originally set the January time frame for the elections in its resolution welcoming the U.S. return of sovereignty to Iraq earlier this year.

The June UN resolution called for the "holding of direct democratic elections by 31 December if possible, and in no case later than 31 January 2005."

The poll is to elect a transitional national assembly that will, among other things, have responsibility for forming a transitional government for Iraq and drafting a permanent constitution. Those steps are to lead to a constitutionally elected Iraqi government by the end of next year.

But some other Iraqi leaders have suggested the polls should go ahead independently of the security situation.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said he want elections to be held even if violence prevents some Iraqis from voting in some areas.

The widening debate over the January election date comes during a month that has been one of the deadliest in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March last year.

The death toll for U.S. troops halfway through September is 52. The worst month remains April of this year, when 135 U.S. troops died.

Hundreds of Iraqis have died this month in insurgent car bombings and other violence. One massive car bombing outside a Baghdad police station killed at least 47 people on 14 September. A group tied to top Al-Qaeda suspect Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack.

The rising violence has sparked sharp criticism of Bush's ability to handle the Iraq crisis from his rival in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, set for 2 November.

Democratic Party nominee John Kerry accused Bush yesterday of painting an overly optimistic picture to the American public of the security situation in Iraq.

"[Bush] didn't tell you that with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, indiscriminate killings," Kerry said. "He didn't tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are actually getting bolder -- that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in the hands of terrorists and extremists."

Reuters this week quoted U.S. government officials as saying privately that a classified U.S. intelligence report prepared for Bush in July offers a gloomy outlook for Iraq's security situation through the end of next year.

The officials say the National Intelligence Estimate -- a synthesis of the views of several U.S. intelligence agencies -- describes three possible scenarios for Iraq.

The report says one possibility is that the country will achieve a tenuous stability. A second possibility is political fragmentation. A third is civil war.

The White House said yesterday that policymakers must address the challenges outlined in the National Intelligence Estimate.

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The Iraqi people are proving that those scenarios are wrong by the progress that they are making to build a better future."

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