Despite daily military operations in Iraq to clear the way for elections on January 30, U.S. commanders acknowledge that some parts of the country are still too dangerous for people to go to the polls. The interim Iraqi government has extended emergency laws in most parts of Iraq for another 30 days to deal with the security crisis.
A top U.S. military commander here, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, says although many parts of Iraq are peaceful, four large provinces in the country are not yet secure enough for Iraqi citizens to vote. "Those provinces represent where we are concentrating effort to put together the security systems and procedures and the number of soldiers, Iraqi and coalition, to successfully hold elections," he said.
The provinces are Anbar province, which includes the restive town of Ramadi; Ninevah province and its provincial capital, Mosul; Saladin province, which contains Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and Baghdad province. Together, the provinces contain more than half the population of Iraq.
All of the troubled provinces have significant populations of Sunni Muslims, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 and have formed the core of a small but resilient insurgency in Iraq ever since.
In recent weeks, U.S. and Iraqi forces have greatly intensified their efforts to quell the violence in those problem areas.
The deputy commander of the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division, whose soldiers patrol a large area of the capital and surrounding areas, says American and Iraqi troops have conducted countless raids and have arrested a number people suspected of taking part in the insurgency.
Brigadier General Jeffery Hammond says many of those arrests were made after citizens called an anonymous tip line, which has recently been established.
"People today are picking up the phone and calling us. They're sharing information," he said. "We've had over 400 calls in the last few months and we action [act on] these things. Callers recently led us to car bombs which were fully rigged to explode, two of them, inside a garage. We found the vehicles. We destroyed them."
But for every car bomb and explosive device found and destroyed, others find a way out into the streets. The latest deadly attack occurred Thursday evening when a U.S. Army armored personnel carrier on patrol hit a roadside bomb in northwestern Baghdad. The explosion killed all seven soldiers inside the vehicle.
The top ground commander in Iraq, General Metz, acknowledges that even if voting could take place in all areas of Iraq by the end of the month, the safety of voters cannot be guaranteed.
"No, I can't guarantee that at all. We are fighting an enemy who cares less about who he kills, when he kills, and how he kills and he will work out a way to find some weakness that we're going to work hard not to give him, but I just cannot guarantee that everyone will be able to go to a poll in total safety," added General Metz. "I cannot put a bubble around every person."
Anticipating a further escalation of violence in the run-up to election day, Iraq's interim government on Thursday extended emergency laws imposed just before the U.S.-led invasion of Fallujah in early November.
The extension gives Iraqi security forces expanded power for 30 more days to pursue insurgents and make arrests. They also give the government the right to impose curfew.