LONDON - Fierce guerrilla attacks in Iraq and U.S. assaults on rebel bastions have unleashed a new wave of bloodshed that threatens to discredit the interim government and undermine prospects for fair elections in January.
Analysts said the U.S. military drive might simply alienate more Iraqis, without eliminating insurgents who this month pushed the American death toll in the Iraq war beyond 1,000.
"Mere force is not enough to calm the situation. You need wisdom and vision, not just muscles," said Ghassan al-Attiyah, director of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development.
With elections for a national parliament only four months away, there is no calm in sight. Instead guerrillas have stepped up attacks. Kidnappings have driven most foreigners out of Iraq.
A car bomb killed 47 people in Baghdad and 12 policemen were shot dead north of the capital on Tuesday, capping a week in which more than 230 people have died in attacks and fighting.
The U.S. push, launched with the blessing of Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, aims to wrest back control of Sunni Muslim towns dominated by insurgents.
"The overriding strategy is to gain local security control in all the cities throughout Iraq by the end of December," U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Erv Lessel, the deputy director of operations in Iraq, told Reuters this week.
After last month's deal to end fighting with followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, some analysts had expected Washington to adopt softly-softly tactics to keep Iraq off the headlines until the November U.S. presidential election.
But any lull was shortlived. This month U.S. forces have staged air strikes or fought battles in Falluja, Ramadi, Tal Afar and Baghdad, while pressuring insurgents in Samarra.
"In my mind it's an inadvisable tactic," said Robert Springborg, head of the London Middle East Institute. "Squeezing everywhere at once will engender too much opposition."
He said there was no indication the military had developed new means to pacify towns like Falluja, where a major assault in April was called off amid a furor over civilian casualties.
"It's dividing Iraqis. It's also causing consternation in Rome, London and Canberra," Springborg added.
None of Washington's military allies in Iraq has publicly voiced disquiet with U.S. tactics, though NATO-member Turkey has threatened to halt cooperation in protest at the U.S. assault on Tal Afar and the reported deaths of ethnic Turkmen civilians.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said London fully supported efforts by Allawi's government and the United Nations to set the stage for elections in January.
Rooting out insurgents was a priority for Allawi and it was hard to second-guess the generals leading the multinational force, he said. "No question that this is a sensitive issue. It needs to be handled militarily with proper care and attention."
Allawi has acknowledged that insecurity might prevent some Iraqis from voting, but says this would not devalue the polls.
Attiyah said conditions for elections were worse than a year ago, when Washington opposed demands by top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to vote on their future.
"Had we done things better, people would feel the elections would be real, serious, free, honest and fair. Somehow those who felt outsiders still feel excluded," Attiyah said.
He said Iraqis who had given Allawi a political honeymoon after the June 28 transfer of sovereignty had lost faith when a national conference in July failed to bring new groups into the political process or promote reconciliation.
"TALK, DON'T BOMB"
Rime Allawi, an analyst at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, said she could not see credible elections taking place against such a violent backdrop.
"The Americans must stop all these bombings. They are using Israeli tactics that are completely counter-productive.
"It makes no sense if Washington's idea is to pacify Iraq or stabilize the oil market. They should talk to Iraqi leaders who can exert some influence on insurgents," she said.
That was the interim government's initial strategy, when it offered an amnesty and talked of dividing "nationalist" rebels from foreign Islamist militants, armed criminals and kidnappers.
Economic and political carrots still seem a vital part of any strategy to counter insurgency, keep Iraq's factions engaged in a political process and stave off the specter of civil war.
"Civil wars take place not because people plan them, but because they drift into them," Attiyah said. "We are drifting."
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