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White House banking heavily on successful election

Robin Wright and Josh White Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Bush Friday rebutted pessimistic assessments that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, as the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. troops are facing a new challenge from insurgents who have started deploying larger and deadlier bombs over the past two weeks in the run-up to Iraq’s first democratic elections.

Bush Friday said the Jan. 30 elections will be “such an incredibly hopeful experience” for Iraqis and that the United States and its Iraqi allies are “making great progress.”

Yet, amid concerns about the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, the Pentagon plans to dispatch retired Gen. Gary E. Luck to assess training efforts and make recommendations about accelerating the process, because a functioning Iraqi military is at the heart of a U.S. exit strategy.

With only three weeks until the election, the United States is also beefing up its diplomatic efforts to make sure the election is seen as credible. To ensure a large turnout by Sunni Muslims, considered a key test of the election’s legitimacy, the Bush administration is pressing the Arab League and reluctant Sunni leaders throughout the Middle East for a last-ditch effort to help mobilize Sunni voters, according to U.S. officials.

In addition, Washington is helping to mobilize an 11-nation team of monitors, led by Canada and including Muslims, to oversee the polling in an effort to win international support for the outcome as free and fair, even if large numbers of the pivotal Sunni minority boycott the election, Western diplomats said Friday.

The latest U.S. efforts come at the crucial first juncture in a year of tests – including two national elections and the writing of a constitution – that will determine whether U.S. intervention in Iraq can result in creation of a stable new democracy, U.S. officials say.

“The job of the United States military is to do the best job we can to give every citizen the best chance they can to vote and to participate,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office on Friday. He acknowledged that the transition to democracy is “hard” and said the only recourse is “to be aggressive in the spread of freedom … to stand with those brave citizens in Iraq who want to vote. And that’s exactly what we will do.”

Bush said 14 of 18 provinces appear to be “relatively calm,” noting that the election introduces a “new way of life” that is being embraced by the majority of “brave Iraqis.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a military affairs specialist with the Brookings Institution, said Friday: “The president has no choice but to be optimistic. Anyone in his shoes at this point would hope that the election process could put us on a better track in Iraq, and that’s certainly a theoretical possibility. But the weight of evidence is against it.”

On Thursday, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, said in a speech that he has grown pessimistic about prospects for stability and democracy in Iraq, a view increasingly expressed by foreign policy figures in both parties. Scowcroft predicted “an incipient civil war.”

At a Pentagon briefing Friday, Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez said the insurgents’ roadside bombs – “all being built more powerfully, with more explosive effort in a smaller number” – represent a new tactic against U.S.-led coalition forces. The devices already proved deadly this week when seven soldiers were killed after their heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit a bomb, overturned, and caught fire.

Rodriguez, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insurgents are assembling the bombs by stringing together more artillery shells and ordnance, a variation of the smaller bombs that have more focused firepower.

The administration is also clearly concerned about the program to train Iraqi forces. In Baghdad, a senior officer with the U.S. military command said the initiative for Luck’s mission came from the Pentagon and appeared to have been stirred by last month’s request for more troops by Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the two top military commanders in charge of Iraq. The request was prompted by their determination that Iraq’s own fledgling forces would not be adequate to ensure security for the elections in the face of the persistent insurgency.

“I have the impression they’re frustrated in Washington with the fact that we had to increase force levels,” the officer said. “I think they want to see if there are ways of accelerating development of the Iraqi forces.” Although Iraqi security forces have been fighting alongside U.S. forces, they have taken heavy casualties, lost members to intimidation, and shown widely disparate capabilities.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Lawrence Di Rita acknowledged that Iraqi forces have fallen short of expectations, even though they are gradually assuming a larger role in Iraq’s security.

“There’s areas where the Iraqi security forces have performed well. There’s areas where they’ve performed suboptimally, you know, not as well. There’s areas where they’ve been overwhelmed by their opposition and have had to step back and live to fight another day. And there’s areas where they’ve just plain not participated in the fight,” he told reporters.

Bush said Luck’s assessment team is going to Iraq to ensure that a “focused, determined strategy” to help the new government “stand up the forces necessary to defend themselves,” since the ultimate test of the new Iraq will be the willingness of its citizens to “fight for their own freedom.”

Luck, who has been tapped by several top generals in Iraq for guidance, has visited the country about half a dozen times since major combat operations began in March 2003. He was an adviser to Gen. Tommy R. Franks during the invasion.

To boost the election turnout, the administration is working with Arab leaders to get them to tap into Iraq’s Sunni community, tribal networks, former exiles based in their countries and other informal channels to urge a Sunni turnout. Washington is also campaigning behind the scenes for a resolution at a Jan. 12 meeting of the Arab League, which is dominated by Sunni leaders, calling for all Iraqis to turn out and vote.

In Iraq, Kurds and Shiites are reaching out to Sunni tribal elders, “sitting down with them and trying to encourage Sunnis to fully participate,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told Egyptian television Friday.

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