WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race.
Although American commanders in Iraq have been buoyed by recent successes in insurgent-held towns such as Samarra and Tall Afar, administration and Pentagon officials say they will not try to retake cities such as Fallouja and Ramadi — where the insurgents' grip is strongest and U.S. military casualties could be the highest — until after Americans vote in what is likely to be an extremely close election.
"When this election's over, you'll see us move very vigorously," said one senior administration official involved in strategic planning, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Once you're past the election, it changes the political ramifications" of a large-scale offensive, the official said. "We're not on hold right now. We're just not as aggressive."
Any delay in pacifying Iraq's most troublesome cities, however, could alter the dynamics of a different election — the one in January, when Iraqis are to elect members of a national assembly.
With less than four months remaining, U.S. commanders are scrambling to enable voting in as many Iraqi cities as possible to shore up the poll's legitimacy.
U.S. officials point out that there have been no direct orders to commanders to halt operations in the weeks before the November 2 U.S. election. Top administration officials in Washington are simply reluctant to sign off on a major offensive in Iraq at the height of the political season.
Asked for comment, White House spokesman Taylor Gross said, "The commanders in the field will continue to make the decisions regarding military operations, and will continue to assist the Iraqi people in the pursuit of a more peaceful and safer Iraq."
Pentagon officials said they see a benefit to waiting before an offensive in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the insurgent-dominated region north and west of Baghdad. That would allow more time for political negotiations and targeted airstrikes in Fallouja.
"We're having more impact with our airstrikes than we had expected," said a senior Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We see no need to rush headlong with hundreds of tanks into Fallouja right now."
Because U.S. commanders no longer have carte blanche to run military operations inside Iraq, they must seek approval from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has his own political future to consider — even though he owes his position to the U.S.
U.S. officials said Allawi had backed a broad plan to retake insurgent-controlled cities in Iraq before the January election. Allawi approved the recent successful U.S. offensive in Samarra, which U.S. commanders considered necessary only after a local government installed by Allawi buckled under constant attack by insurgents.
Yet there has been occasional friction between U.S. commanders in Baghdad and the Iraqi government that took power after the U.S.-led coalition handed over sovereignty June 28.
In August, top U.S. officers in Iraq and Pentagon officials were angry when Allawi ordered a halt to a day-old, U.S.-led offensive against Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia as it holed up inside the sacred Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.
Allawi called the cease-fire to allow time for negotiations with Sadr, which ultimately broke down. U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington argued that such frictions were just part of a gradual process of reducing Iraq's dependence on the U.S. military.
"We made a deal, and that's what you get when you set up an interim government," a senior military official at the Pentagon said. "But the alternative is not recognizing them."
U.S. officials said the recent offensive operation in Samarra went more smoothly than they had expected, and has boosted optimism that more cities can be wrested from insurgent hands before January's election.
"People looked at Samarra and said, 'Wow, this works.' It wasn't nearly as difficult an operation as we had anticipated," the senior Defense official said. "After Samarra, we now believe we can do more."
Just weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid of U.S. Central Command began lowering expectations about how comprehensive the January vote would be, suggesting that some rebellious cities such as Fallouja might have to be left out of the balloting.
U.S. officers in Baghdad said that the biggest difference between the Samarra operation and the failed U.S. offensive in Fallouja in April was that select units of the Iraqi national guard held their ground under enemy fire. In April, the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces in Fallouja capitulated soon after the U.S. offensive began.
"You've got to have a credible Iraqi security force that the local populace has confidence in," said Army Col. Bob Pricone, chief of operations at the U.S.-led coalition forces' headquarters in Baghdad. "Four or five months ago, the populace didn't have a lot of confidence in the Iraqi national guard."
Still, Pentagon officials say that it may not be militarily feasible to bring every Iraqi city in the Sunni Triangle under the control of U.S. forces and the Iraqi government in time for the January election. The military view was contradicted by senior State Department officials who declared in recent congressional testimony that there were no plans to exclude any Iraqi city from voting.
"The State Department can talk about people voting everywhere. But securing Iraq in time for the election can't happen without the U.S. military," the Defense official said.
During a recent trip to Washington, Allawi expressed his interest in reclaiming insurgent-controlled cities in the Sunni Triangle in time for the January election, even in light of the potentially negative political impact in Iraq that a bloody military operation could have.
Yet officials say that the man who owes his job to President Bush — and might not have such a warm relationship with a President John F. Kerry — does not want to press his case too hard before the U.S. election.
"A lot of his political future depends on our election," said the senior administration official.
Conversely, much of the future of the U.S. in Iraq may depend on Allawi and his ability to emerge from the shadow of the occupation and ensure that Iraq reaches its own political milestone in January.
For 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq trying to break the will of a deadly insurgency, that means understanding — and sometimes bending to — the needs of U.S. politics and the demands of their Iraqi hosts.
Said Pricone, the operations chief: "We'll work through as many cities as the Iraqi government wants us to."
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