The State Department, on the eve of the voting in Zimbabwe, has accused President Robert Mugabe and his political supporters of trying to steal the election. U.S. officials are raising the prospect of additional targeted sanctions against the country's leadership.
Officials here accuse the Mugabe government of carrying out a "blatant" campaign of violence, intimidation and manipulation of the electoral process, leaving little chance that the people of the African country will be able to express their free will.
Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher read off a long list of abuses including attacks on opposition supporters by youth gangs, curbs on the independent media and poll watchers, cuts in the number of polling stations in areas where the opposition is strong, and the apparent coercion of members of the military to vote for Mr. Mugabe.
Mr. Boucher said all the evidence makes it clear, as he put it, that the government "intends to win the election by any means". He added, "The bottom line of this is that the pervasive and profound campaign of violence, intimidation and electoral manipulations makes it very difficult for there to be an untainted election."
The 78-year-old Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader for more than two decades, is running against former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who in the course of the campaign has faced physical assaults and charges of treason.
In a Congressional appearance earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell called Mr. Mugabe an "anachronism" whose behavior and political conduct are no longer acceptable.
The Mugabe government has severely limited outside monitoring of the two-day election, and officials here say the administration will rely mainly on accounts from U.S. diplomats in Harare and opposition statements in judging the conduct of the vote.
A senior U.S. official said in the likely event the election is deemed to have been unfair, the Bush administration will follow the European Union's lead and impose targeted financial sanctions against Mr. Mugabe and his top associates.
U.S. travel restrictions against Zimbabwe's leaders and their families were imposed last month, after the government expelled the head of the European Union monitoring mission, prompting the withdrawal of the rest of the EU team.