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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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Friday, September 10

Insurgency threatens Iraqi elections, U.S. exit plan

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON — An especially bloody six weeks in Iraq have clarified what lies ahead for the U.S. troops there: an insurgency that won’t quit and Iraqi forces incapable of fighting it alone anytime soon.

Complicating that are elections to be held sometime by year’s end, which have little hope of success while Iraq remains immersed in violence.

But to delay the elections would be to delay the next major step in an eventual U.S. handoff and exit strategy. What’s more, it would raise suspicions among Iraqis about American plans to leave eventually.

So what to do?

The options are to move quickly and crush the swelling insurgency, either with U.S. forces in the lead or Iraqi troops to the extent they are capable.

Or, wait out a protracted counterinsurgency of selective strikes while holding regional elections where security permits.

"This could take years," said Michael O’Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There are no good solutions here."

Tenacious insurgency

Since April, U.S. forces have struggled against sporadic Sunni Arab and Shiite insurgents, who have gained control over increasingly larger tracts of Iraq.

Spikes in the insurgency have meant corresponding surges in U.S. casualties, pushing the total for the 17-month-long campaign to more than 1,000 in the first week of September.

April, which saw both Sunni and Shiite rebellions, was the war’s deadliest month for the roughly 135,000 U.S. troops, with 137 casualties.

In August, attacks against U.S. troops again surged — from about 1,600 the month before to 2,700.

Insurgents now control half a dozen important cities north, west and south of Baghdad as well as the Sadr City slum that borders the capital.

Top Pentagon officials have said they want to bolster Iraqi forces significantly before trying to take back what have become "no-go" zones for U.S. troops.

"While U.S. forces or coalition forces can do just about anything we want to do, it makes a lot more sense that it be a sustained operation — one that can be sustained by Iraqi security forces," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That said, U.S. forces are not waiting idly.

On Thursday, U.S. and Iraqi forces entered the central city of Samarra, controlled by Sunni insurgents, for the first time in months. On Friday, U.S. jets bombed the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah while American troops clashed yet again with Shiite militia forces in Sadr City.

But as the bullets fly, the clock ticks.

Next four months

The elections scheduled to be held in the next several months are hardly symbolic. They will select a national assembly that will draft a constitution.

For the Iraqis, they represent the first real control over their own affairs and the beginning of a break from what many consider an oppressive U.S. occupation.

If Iraqis can pull off reasonably successful elections — without sparking a civil war — they will take a major step toward stability, allowing U.S. forces to reduce their profile and exposure to fire.

The insurgency is dangerous to American interests in large part because it threatens this process.

Sunni insurgents, many terrorists or former members of Saddam Hussein’s toppled Baathist regime, are trying to disrupt Iraq in hopes the elections will crumble and U.S. forces will abandon the country.

The Shiite insurgents have shown themselves to be more reasonable than the Sunnis and genuinely interested in the democratic process. But they wield considerable political and military power and can be highly destabilizing.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrated that in August, holding off thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops in Najaf before relinquishing control of the holy city to a senior Shiite cleric rather than Iraqi or American authorities.

"This guy is a real danger because he does not believe in the legitimacy of the political process under the U.S.," said Juan Cole, a noted expert on Iraq at the University of Michigan.

In order to keep the democratic process on schedule Iraq might have to exclude wholesale blocks of the Sunni population from voting. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s roughly 25 million people.

Selective suffrage in Iraq’s first elections runs the risk of sharpening the already volatile divide between the Sunnis and Shiites — a 60 percent majority — potentially sparking a civil war.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday again warned that the political process will be turbulent.

"Without a doubt in my mind, they (insurgents) will increase the level of violence before now" and the elections.