WASHINGTON — Top U.S. officials differed Friday over key details of planned Iraqi elections in January, including the unresolved issue of whether all Iraqis will be able to vote and who will protect them from their country’s worsening violence.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Congress the elections must be held throughout the country, including areas gripped by violence. That contradicted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said Thursday and again Friday that if insurgents prevent Iraqis from voting in some areas, a partial vote would be better than none at all.
Asked about Rumsfeld’s comment, Armitage told a House Appropriations panel, “We’re going to have an election that is free and open, and that has to be open to all citizens.” Asked after the hearing if partial elections were being considered, he said: “No. Not now. Not that I know of.”
Among areas of increasing bloodshed in Iraq are some where U.S.-led coalition forces don’t go because they are partly or wholly controlled by insurgents.
Defense officials have put off trying to rout insurgents from those places, including the city of Fallujah, until Iraqi forces now in training are strong enough to hold any area once it is retaken, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said recently.
The interim Iraqi government, meanwhile, has been talking with tribal elders to negotiate a deal to end the insurgents’ hold in some places.
Extra U.S. troops to aid voting?
Some lawmakers, meanwhile, fear more American troops may have to go to Iraq to help in elections. Gen. John Abizaid, commander of troops in the region, said this week he couldn’t discount the possibility, though he said believes Iraqi and possibly international troops could handle the job.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., told Armitage that a plan relying on having sufficient Iraqis trained in time was “astoundingly optimistic.” If Americans are to bear the extra burden — as they have been forced to stay in Iraq on extended deployments — then the American people should be told now, and not given the news “on the installment plan,” Obey said.
But Army officials said Friday it is likely that during the elections, the U.S. military will have extra troops in the country anyway. The Army is rotating fresh troops into Iraq this fall and winter to replace those whose one-year tours are ending, and it expects to have an overlap of 10,000 to 15,000 extra U.S. soldiers in January when the 3rd Infantry Division’s four brigades arrive to replace the 1st Cavalry Division, the officials said.
Concern about financing shift
Obey was among lawmakers worried about a Bush administration request to shift to security some money budgeted for Iraq electricity, water and other reconstruction.
“Reducing supplies of potable water and increasing sewage will adversely affect the health and well-being of millions of Iraqis, but I see no alternative,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee that held the hearing.
The State Department recommended the shift after taking over in July as the lead U.S. agency in Iraq, rejecting spending priorities the Pentagon laid out when it led the 15-month military occupation.
Slowing what Kolbe called the already “lamentably slow” progress on promised reconstruction projects will hurt the effort to win Iraqi “hearts and minds” — a key to defeating the insurgents, officials and lawmakers alike fear.
Speaking of the promise to hold free and fair elections in Iraq, Armitage said: “It’s got to be our best effort to get it into troubled areas as well. ... I wouldn’t want to leave California out of an election in the United States, or Wisconsin, or anybody.”
Rumsfeld: ‘Every Iraqi deserves the right to vote’
Before Armitage spoke, Rumsfeld reiterated in a meeting with reporters Friday that he believes the elections should go ahead even a he acknowledged some areas may be inaccessible to voting. He did modify his remarks from the previous day, however, saying: “Every Iraqi deserves the right to vote.”
“We and the government of Iraq intend to see that the elections are held ... that they’re held on time” and “do everything possible to see that that happens, and to see that every Iraqi has the right to vote,” he said.
On Thursday, he told a Senate committee that if the election could be held in three-fourths or four-fifths of the country, but violence was too great for a vote in the rest of the country, “So be it. Nothing’s perfect in life.”
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Thursday that January elections “may not be 100 percent safe.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested last week that there could not be “credible elections” if violence doesn’t abate.
The United States has been pressing the United Nations to send more people to Iraq to help with elections, but U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said this week that any such increase “is critically dependent on the overall security environment.”
In another action, Bush took steps Friday to get Iraq removed from a list of nations that sponsor terrorists.
In a memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush noted that there has been a change in leadership and policies of Iraq and said: “Iraq’s government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
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