A top U.S. military official in charge of the Middle East says coalition forces will do all they can to ensure Iraqi elections set for late January will go ahead. But with parts of Iraq's Sunni triangle still in the grip of insurgents, U.S. officials, both civilian and military are not prepared to say the entire country will be safe enough to ensure a nationwide vote.
While he is pleased with the two week ground assault that drove terrorists and insurgents out of Fallujah, Lieutenant General Lance Smith, the deputy commander of all American forces in the Middle East, says intense fighting continues in some parts of the city. "It looks like these are some of the jihadists. We're not sure whether they're foreign fighters or local but what we see from them is the type of people that are there prepared to fight to the very last," he said.
Military intelligence is now examining what terrorist leaders and insurgents who fled the city left behind. In some cases, it was huge amounts of weapons caches, torture chambers, and centers for making the explosives that continue to kill U.S. forces and terrorize civilians across the country. "I think it's too early for me to say, given the broad perspective on Iraq that the backbone of the insurgency has broken," he said.
There have been attempts, he says, by wanted Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is believed to have fled Fallujah, and top leaders of al-Qaida, including Osama bin Laden, to communicate. To what effect, though is not known.
Still, the key question facing the U.S. led coalition is how much impact the rout of insurgents in Fallujah will have on the insurgency in other parts of Iraq's Sunni triangle. That will weigh heavily on the chances for successful Iraqi elections, now set for January 27 or 28. "I don't believe there will be another safe haven. But I will tell you that the intimidation campaign that is on going is very effective. It's that part that we have got to be able to handle and take that away from them so people can freely get out with some level of reasonable risk to vote," he said.
The U.S. military is going to do everything in its power, he says, for that to happen. But a U.S. official in Baghdad told reporters Friday the insurgency is growing worse in Sunni areas of the country where he says it's becoming difficult to move ahead on reconstruction and where elections would likely be difficult to hold as well.