WASHINGTON – The No. 2 official at the State Department said Friday that the elections planned for January in Iraq must be "open to all citizens," contradicting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has suggested that voting might not be possible in the more violent areas.
"We're going to have an election that is free and open and that has to be open to all citizens. It's got to be our best effort to get it into troubled areas as well," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a House committee Friday, after being asked about Rumsfeld's words.
Armitage told reporters after the hearing that: "We absolutely want to hold them in all parts of Iraq." Asked if partial elections were under consideration, he said: "No. Not now. Not that I know of."
Rumsfeld had first said Thursday — and reiterated in a meeting with reporters Friday before Armitage spoke — that he believes the elections should go ahead. But Rumsfeld also suggested the balloting may be impossible in areas where the potential for violence is too great.
"We recognize there is an increased level of violence as we move toward these elections," Rumsfeld said to reporters Friday after meeting with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld said: "Every Iraqi deserves the right to vote. We and the government of Iraq intend to see that the elections are held, intend to see that they're held on time, and to do everything possible to see that that happens, and to see that every Iraqi has the right to vote."
But Rumsfeld again acknowledged that some areas may be inaccessible to voting. On Thursday, he told a Senate committee that Iraqis may "have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet."
Allawi has not commented on Rumsfeld's remarks.
Some officials have raised the possibility of more troops going to Iraq to assist in elections security at a time when violence is expected to be high. Gen. John Abizaid has said he expects Iraqi and possible international troops to do the job.
But it is likely that during the elections the U.S. military will have extra troops in the country anyway, Army officials said Friday.
Because the Army is rotating fresh troops into Iraq this fall and winter to replace those whose one-year tours are ending, it expects to have an overlap of 10,000 to 15,000 extra U.S. soldiers in January when the 3rd Infantry Division's four brigades arrive to replace the 1st Cavalry Division, the Army officials said Friday.
Allawi, during a speech Thursday after an address to Congress and talks with President Bush, expressed annoyance with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for suggesting last week that there could not be "credible elections" if violence doesn't abate by January.
Allawi said he planned to ask Annan for a clarification of his remarks during a meeting in New York on Friday before heading home.
Allawi said he asked U.N. officials in Iraq whether they were privy to inside information about a postponement. Their answer was no, the prime minister said.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said Rumsfeld's comments were at odds with President Bush's own upbeat remarks earlier Thursday about Iraq's future. "For a White House that likes to condemn mixed signals, it certainly is sending out a few of its own," Singer said.
Kerry contends Bush has been dishonest about the war's rationale and cost and lacks an effective strategy to end the crisis. Kerry urges a start of troop withdrawals within six months and complete pullout in four years.
But Bush and Allawi, appearing together at a White House Rose Garden news conference on Thursday, said the United States must stand and fight.
Allawi, speaking later, acknowledged that the January elections "may not be 100 percent safe" but insisted that the country is making progress.
"Security is going to get better," he said. "We have plans in place. We hope it will work."
As for the violence increasingly buffeting his country and his leadership, Allawi added, "We are inflicting a lot of losses, very heavy losses." As a direct result, the insurgents are "becoming more desperate" and resorting to suicide bombings, he said.
Iraq's interim constitution says elections for a national assembly must be held by Jan. 31.
September is shaping up as one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops since the Iraq conflict started 18 months ago.
In addition, the State Department recently decided to redirect significant funds to build up Iraqi security forces, sacrificing a number of reconstruction projects.