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Iraqi, US Forces Brace for More Violence as Elections Approach

In Iraq, mounting violence against Iraqi security forces a month before the country's first free elections, has prompted the U.S. military to boost troop levels and the Iraqi government to create a new security force. Both Iraqi and U.S. forces are bracing for the worst in such major cities as Baghdad and Mosul, where insurgents have vowed to disrupt the polls.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, the deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, Brigadier General Jeffery Hammond, gave a grim prediction of what the Iraqi capital may experience in the run-up to elections on January 30.

"We anticipate the enemy will express his will in the election process through attacks, intimidation, assassinations and other methods designed to destroy life in Baghdad," he said.

For many Iraqi policemen and National Guardsmen here, that prediction is already a terrifying reality.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003, Iraqi insurgents, believed in part to be a mix of Saddam loyalists and Sunni Muslim extremists, have targeted the country's U.S.-trained security forces.

Accused by the radicals of being collaborators in what they see as a U.S.-led effort to westernize Iraq, hundreds of Iraqi security forces have been killed in ambushes, car bombings and drive-by shootings.

Now, after this week's massacres, assassinations and attempted assassinations of police and guardsmen in Iraq, many security officers privately say that they are very scared to stay on the job.

They are also concerned that such attacks may increase in the coming weeks, following an audiotape message attributed to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, which was broadcast Monday. The audiotape urged Iraqi insurgents to consider the January 30 elections as the work of "infidels."

The Iraqis, not U.S. troops, are expected to provide the bulk, if not all, of the security at about 6,000 polling stations to be set up nationwide.

Some security officers, like Baghdad policeman Musa Abbas, are already expressing skepticism about whether his men can withstand the relentless intimidation of the insurgents, and provide a safe environment for voters.

Mr. Abbas says he does not believe Iraq has enough trained policemen, firepower and equipment to handle the elections by themselves. He says he is frightened about what will happen, if the insurgents escalate their activities.

American commanders here, including Brigadier General Hammond, acknowledge that Iraqi forces have yet to prove that they can handle violent situations on their own.

One of the most alarming events took place in mid-November, when insurgents launched a series of deadly coordinated attacks in the northern city of Mosul. The attacks prompted 3,000 of the city's 4,000 police officers to flee and hundreds of Iraqi National Guardsmen to desert their units.

On Monday, the largest party representing Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim community pulled out of the elections, saying the worsening security situation, particularly in Sunni-dominated areas of the country, would prevent many Sunnis from voting.

Despite the setback, the United States says elections can and will be held on time. On Thursday, President Bush told reporters that the most urgent task now is to provide as much security as possible for election officials and for the Iraqi people, so that all Iraqis can, in his words, "express their will. "

To that end, the U.S. military has begun increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from 138,000 to 150,000. The military maintains that its troops will serve strictly as back-up, and will only intervene if asked by the Iraqi government.

A senior advisor at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Sabah Kadhim, says his government also believes that there is enough time to restore law and order before January 30. Key to that effort is a new Iraqi force created to help the police and Iraqi Guardsmen deal with the insecurity problem.

Formed three months ago, Mr. Kadhim says, some 10,000 men are already gathering intelligence and are training to act as a rapid reaction force in hot spots around the country.

"It was our initiative to start the Special Forces for the Ministry of Interior, which meant recruiting former officers of the Iraqi army, which has a tremendous record and has many people who are capable of doing the fighting, if you like," he said. "They know some places very well and, therefore, they can target the terrorists, rather than go blindly in a town and try to go find out who is a terrorist. Several hundred foreign fighters have been captured already. So, the intelligence is accelerating now, where we didn't have any [before]."

But like the insurgents, many of the former Iraqi army officers in the force are Sunni Muslims with ties to Saddam's Baath Party. And that has raised concern that some of them could sympathize with the insurgents, and even aid the insurgency.

Mr. Kadhim insists that is not a danger. He says the Iraqi government would not tolerate anyone who would harm the country's attempts to become a democratic nation. That, he says, is the wish of the Iraqi people.