- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

U.S. commanders in Iraq are tracking terror attacks with special attention this month to see whether Sunday’s historic elections will take some steam out of the insurgency.

A senior diplomat in Baghdad said to look for a “long-term” diminishing effect on the enemy, but made no prediction of an immediate reduction in bombings.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi yesterday started easing security measures that blunted suicide attacks and allowed relatively safe voting by 8 million Iraqis. The interim government condensed curfew hours, and removed some restrictions on private vehicles and border crossings.

The Bush administration is watching to see whether violence spikes to the pre-election rate of 70 to 80 daily attacks. A key Bush ally on Capitol Hill said it is hard to predict the postelection response of the insurgents.

“I think it requires knowing the mind-set of folks who heretofore have been very difficult to predict,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican.

Mr. Hunter said the insurgents’ constant attacks have toughened the Iraqi security forces so crucial to the U.S. administration’s exit strategy.

“Because [Iraqi forces] have been struck so often in the buildup [to the elections], it has turned raw recruits into combat veterans,” the congressman said. “These people have had to be involved in nearly every firefight.”

“I think there are going to be bombs going off in some degree for a long time in Iraq, even when Americans are totally gone,” he added. “Iraq has it within its capability to produce a military that can protect the government and protect the infrastructure and move forward.”

A U.S. diplomat in Baghdad said that although the elections’ short-term effect on the insurgents in not known, “these elections will have a significant long-term effect, in the positive sense, on the insurgency.”

There were 270 attacks on election day, most of which targeted polling places, the U.S. diplomat said. Yet the insurgents were not able to capture any voting station or kidnap any election workers.

“What was significant about these attacks was the low degree of lethality,” the official said. “There were very low casualties for that number of attacks.”

The hope in Washington is that Saddam Hussein loyalists will see the elections as Iraq’s unstoppable move toward a permanent democracy and will decide to give up the insurgency and join the government.

“At least preliminarily the overtures have been made by Allawi and others to bring the Sunnis into participation,” Mr. Hunter said. Most of the insurgents, like Saddam, are Sunni Muslims in a nation with a Shi’ite majority.

But the diplomat in Baghdad cautioned, “We have very little insight into the very diverse leadership” of the insurgency.

U.S. troops played a background role in protecting the elections, letting Iraqi security forces guard about 5,000 polling places while Americans patrolled at a distance. The U.S. goal this year is to turn virtually all counterinsurgency missions over to the Iraqis.

“This election was carried on the shoulders of the American military,” Mr. Hunter said. “Rarely has there been an illustration of the direct relationship between American military power and a payoff of freedom that was reflected in the voting. Those people would never be putting those ballots in the boxes if it wasn’t for the American military and a fellow named George Bush.”

An Islamic Web site linked to the al Qaeda terror network yesterday posted a statement labeling the elections “theatrics” and vowing to continue a “holy war” against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

“If I were an insurgent, I would be really bitterly disappointed,” the U.S. diplomat said. “I certainly wouldn’t conclude I should surrender. I would conclude that I have to show I’m still a player.”

Borzou Daragahi contributed to this article from Baghdad.

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