More than security is needed for free elections in Iraq

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The victory declared yesterday by US and Iraqi forces over insurgents in the city of Samarra was won at a very high cost. Preliminary estimates were that more than 120 people were killed, many times more were injured, and almost 100 were taken prisoner. The rolling campaign of pacification by force has now moved on to the "rebel" city of Fallujah.

The victory declared yesterday by US and Iraqi forces over insurgents in the city of Samarra was won at a very high cost. Preliminary estimates were that more than 120 people were killed, many times more were injured, and almost 100 were taken prisoner. The rolling campaign of pacification by force has now moved on to the "rebel" city of Fallujah.

It is not hard to divine the purpose of these offensives. The interests of the interim Iraqi government and those of the United States are both served by having as much of Iraq as possible under central control as soon as possible. The Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, desperately needs more authority than he currently has. Above all, he needs to show that the promise of elections by the end of January is one that his government can keep. Registration of voters is due to begin next month.

President Bush, facing election in four weeks' time, needs to demonstrate that Iraq is not running out of control and that his ambition for representative government in Iraq - the less ambitious version of democracy that the US and British have settled on - is more than a pipe-dream. The aim is for US-backed Iraqi forces to take back all Iraq's rebel-held areas before the January elections.

US firepower may be sufficient to retake most of the towns where the insurgency is strongest, so long as commanders are not too fussy about the methods they use. Pacification by force, however, is very far indeed from the noble objectives of bringing liberty and democracy to Iraq with which the US and British intervention began. We have not heard much recently about the need to win Iraqi hearts and minds; we will probably hear even less in the near future.

The difficulty for Mr Allawi and for the US is that even if enough of the country can be secured to make voting a realistic proposition - which is not at all certain - the peace will be sullen and Iraqis will be even less accepting of the foreign presence than they are now. By multiplying the military offensives, the US risks discrediting the electoral process just as surely as if the country were too dangerous to allow voting at all. Iraq is showing yet again that democracy cannot be imposed by force.

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