The US and Britain have a duty to ensure Iraq's elections take place safely and on time

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The Independent Online

The US top brass customarily shows a confident face to the world, whatever qualms its officers may feel in private. So it was an unusual departure when the overall commander of the US military in Iraq, General John Abizaid, voiced apprehension about the capacity of Iraqi forces to get to grips with security as next month's elections approach. He did not beat about the bush. Iraq's fledgling troops, he said, had neither the training nor the experience to do the job without extra US assistance. He might well have added that they also lacked the commitment and staying power - not for want of courage on their part, but because anyone working with or for the occupation continues to be in mortal danger, Iraqis above all.

The US top brass customarily shows a confident face to the world, whatever qualms its officers may feel in private. So it was an unusual departure when the overall commander of the US military in Iraq, General John Abizaid, voiced apprehension about the capacity of Iraqi forces to get to grips with security as next month's elections approach. He did not beat about the bush. Iraq's fledgling troops, he said, had neither the training nor the experience to do the job without extra US assistance. He might well have added that they also lacked the commitment and staying power - not for want of courage on their part, but because anyone working with or for the occupation continues to be in mortal danger, Iraqis above all.

Everything that we have seen and heard in recent days and weeks only underlines the scale of the security task in the weeks before the 30 January election. Yesterday alone 17 Iraqis were attacked and killed on their way to work at a US base in Tikrit, a similar number were injured. Attacks elsewhere claimed more Iraqi lives. At least 14 Iraqis and six Americans had been killed the previous day. For US forces, November was the costliest month for casualties since April. Hope that the theoretical restoration of Iraqi sovereignty at the beginning of July might bring a decline in attacks proved misplaced. If anything, the insurgency grew bolder.

The second strategy favoured by the Americans has also failed. It had been the US hope, General Abizaid admitted this weekend, that the Iraqi army would meet any requirements for increased troop strength. But while their numbers were increasing, he said, they still lacked training and experience. This was why another 12,000 US troops were being dispatched and tours of duty were being extended to bring total US strength up to 150,000 - rather closer to the number that the former army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, insisted would be needed before the Iraqi operation began, a projection for which he was forced into retirement.

Meanwhile, the steady deterioration in the security situation has led to mounting calls for the elections to be postponed. And there are real risks with pressing ahead. There needs to be a reasonable participation rate across the country for the elections - to a provisional legislative body - to have any credibility at all. What is more, those areas which are least secure are the very areas where elections need to be held and participation needs to be high. The danger otherwise is that the elections will be seen to be valid in some parts of the country and not in others, undercutting the whole purpose for which the elections are being held.

Supporters and doubters in the feasibility of elections are already lining up on either side. The doubters include many in the US military, who are familiar with the security conditions. They include many Iraqi Sunnis - who fear the loss of the clout they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein to the majority Shia - though how many is impossible to gauge. They include some Kurds, who are reasonably content with the autonomy they enjoy from the status quo. As of yesterday, they also include Lakhdar Brahimi, special adviser to the UN Secretary General, who said that security had to improve if elections were to take place on time.

Those strongly supporting elections include the moderate Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the most prominent members of Iraq's interim, but virtually powerless, government. But perhaps the most ardent public advocate is President Bush, who spoke out last week, the moment the doubters seemed to be in the ascendant. This is one time when the US President's cheery lack of self-doubt must be accounted an asset. More or less democratic elections are the only basis on which any Iraqi government will acquire legitimacy and with it the chance of acceptance. Only a legitimate regime might have a chance of legitimising those recruited to keep order and security in its name. Elections represent Iraq's last best hope. If the occupying forces can do nothing else for Iraq, they must ensure that elections are held, and held on time.

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