BAGHDAD — Iraq remains on course to hold landmark elections in January, but violence could force authorities to exclude hotspots such as the western city of Fallouja from voting, a top U.S. general said here Sunday.
Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operations chief of more than 150,000 mostly U.S. troops, said in an interview that the "cancer" of anti-American militancy in places such as Fallouja would not derail national elections.
A "contingency" plan, Metz said, is to bypass Fallouja -- and perhaps other violent enclaves -- and concentrate on ensuring electoral security in Baghdad and other population centers where hostility is lower.
"We'd have elections before we let one place like Fallouja stop [national] elections," said Metz, the No. 2 U.S. military official in Iraq. "The rest of the country can go on about a process that heads right for an election."
Still, Metz cautioned that the participation of Iraq's three largest cities -- Baghdad, Mosul in the north and Basra in the south -- was essential to any election.
Metz's statements are among the strongest to date by U.S. or Iraqi officials, conceding that the security situation is so perilous that some areas may not be pacified in time for elections.
Although bypassing some cities could allow officials to stick to their planned January timetable, doing so could detract from the election's credibility, foment discontent in Iraq and leave other countries reluctant to acknowledge any government chosen in the vote.
Much of the heartland of central and western Iraq remains a hostile zone for U.S. and Iraqi forces because of a Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
In the capital and to the south, meanwhile, a Shiite militia that launched bloody uprisings in the spring and summer has yet to be dismantled. In August alone, more than 1,000 U.S. troops were hurt and at least 63 killed.
Two more U.S. soldiers died Sunday and 16 were injured when a mortar round hit a base west of Baghdad, officials said. The military also announced the deaths of four Marines on Friday in Al Anbar province, which includes Fallouja. More than 982 soldiers have died in Iraq since the invasion began in March 2003.
The elections scheduled for January are the next major milestone for Iraq as the nation follows a plan backed by the U.S. and U.N. for its transition to democracy.
The country became sovereign again under a U.S.-backed interim government on June 28, about 15 months after the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.
The election is to choose a transitional government charged with writing a constitution and overseeing full elections to be held later. But many Iraqis and outsiders have expressed doubt about how a legitimate election can be held in a society reeling from almost daily bombings and other attacks.
Ideally, experts say, voters should feel free from intimidation and candidates should be able to move freely -- elusive goals in a country where assassinations, abductions and ambushes have become commonplace. No candidates have begun campaigning publicly, and there are few signs of electoral activity. No plan has been announced for voter registration or what documents will be needed.
How to provide security at a projected 9,000 polling places is among the momentous challenges facing Iraqi and Western officials now trying to craft a workable election blueprint for the nation of 24 million.
"There's no scenario being ruled out," a U.S. official here said. "The idea is that people in one or two cities cannot be allowed to veto an election."
One possible option, officials say, is to allow voters from places like Fallouja -- with an estimated population of 280,000 -- to cast their ballots at polling places in designated safe zones outside of their towns.
U.S.-led forces, Metz said, have also not ruled out military action before the vote to win back control in such places as Fallouja and Samarra, a city 60 miles north of Baghdad that is essentially controlled by insurgents.
By December, authorities hope more than 200,000 Iraqi police and troops will be providing primary security for much of the country, with U.S.-led multinational forces as a backup, he said. Intensive training of Iraqi forces is underway nationwide.
"I don't think today you could hold elections," Metz said. "Our goal is to get ourselves to local control ... so that we can conduct an election in January that is recognized internally and externally as a legitimate election."
Excluding polling booths from an entire city or cities, though, may be perilous. The plan would probably alienate those excluded from voting -- most likely minority Sunni Muslims, who have spearheaded the insurgency in places like Fallouja. It could also detract from the international legitimacy of the critical vote.
Yet skipping some dangerous areas, analysts say, may be better than delaying national elections long demanded by many Iraqis, especially the country's Shiite Muslim majority.