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Violence Belies Positive Picture

Few agree with Allawi's assessment as anxiety grips the nation amid a surge in attacks.

September 24, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Large swaths of Iraq remain outside the control of the interim government, major highways are fraught with attackers, and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi -- along with the U.S. Embassy and much of the international community -- must conduct business in fortified compounds guarded by tanks, blast walls and barbed wire.

In Washington, Allawi gave Congress an upbeat assessment Thursday, but the situation in Iraq is more complicated.

Allawi said the Iraqi people were making steady progress in taking control of the nation's affairs. His interim government had assumed sovereignty from the U.S.-led occupation. It had reopened schools and hospitals damaged in the war. Despite attacks, hundreds of Iraqis were still volunteering to join the police and army. And he pledged that the country would hold elections in January.

Widespread anxiety engulfed much of Iraq this month as a wave of car bombings, kidnappings and gun battles killed scores of American soldiers, Iraqi civilians and hostages.

The continuing violence has overshadowed signs of progress and put a damper on the prospect of democratic elections.

"How can we hold elections when they will bomb every polling booth?" asked Husham Mahdi, a 29-year-old communications engineer in Baghdad, echoing a common sentiment.

In a question and answer session after his speech to Congress, Allawi described Baghdad as "very good and safe."

In the city of Samarra, Allawi noted, a new police chief had been appointed and Iraqi forces were patrolling the city "in close coordination" with the U.S.-led coalition. But U.S. commanders say the insurgent stronghold, which the Army recently entered for the first time in months, remains far from pacified.

"Samarra is not over with," said Lt. Col. James Stockmoe, intelligence officer with the 1st Infantry Division, which patrols Samarra.

The police chief appointed this month, at least the 12th since Saddam Hussein's ouster, resigned within a few days after receiving death threats.

Some U.S. military officials fear that the city's police force is largely in cahoots with insurgents, giving them access to weapons and vehicles. In July, a suicide bomber used a police vehicle to plow into the Army base outside Samarra, killing five U.S. soldiers and injuring 18.

Allawi blamed the American media for failing to report some of the positive steps his government had taken with the help of the U.S.-led coalition. He cited social programs such as polio vaccinations and other efforts. He said thousands of Iraqis had gotten jobs, salaries had increased dramatically and the economy "has finally started to flourish."

Allawi praised efforts to train more soldiers and police and said the performance of the new Iraqi security forces was "improving every day."

U.S. commanders credit Iraqi forces for helping to rid Najaf of fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. But it remains questionable whether they can take on insurgents without U.S. help. Shortages of equipment and personnel continue to plague the forces.

On a recent visit to Baqubah, where police have often been targeted, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus -- who is overseeing the training of Iraqi forces -- listened as local police and national guard officers said they desperately needed more trained officers and equipment. His visit came a few days after 11 provincial police officers were killed in a drive-by attack.

"We've got to create a training academy here," said Petraeus, who also offered to ship new armored vehicles, body armor and other gear from Baghdad.

The continued inability of Iraqi forces to secure areas after U.S. offensives has been a major reason such operations have been put on hold in places like Samarra and Fallouja.

"We have got the tactical ability to do just about anything, but what I don't want to do is create a vacuum," Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational chief for U.S.-led multinational forces, said in a recent interview.

Allawi said that in the city of Tall Afar, in northwestern Iraq, the interim government had "reversed" an attempted insurgent takeover.

Reports from the city indicate that masked rebels no longer control the town. But the city's Turkmen majority, regarded a U.S. ally, is resentful after what it views as excessive American force and bombing, which was approved by Allawi's government.

Allawi also cited "success" in Najaf and Kufa, where residents celebrated the ouster of Sadr, the militant cleric.

Although the militia was routed in both cities, many fighters appear to have moved to Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. Daily firefights and roadside bombs have plagued the U.S. there.

Allawi said it was "a fact" that elections could be held in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "tomorrow." But few experts would agree. The consensus among poll-watchers is that holding nationwide elections by January, as scheduled, will be difficult.

Apart from the widespread violence, the provinces lack electoral infrastructure -- which some view as a greater challenge than security.

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