WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military commander for Iraq (search) said Sunday he expected flawed elections and much violence ahead of the voting scheduled for January.
Gen. John Abizaid's (search) assessment followed a week in which President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) spoke optimistically about the situation despite the beheadings of two more Americans and the deaths of dozens of people in car bombings. On Friday, the military said four Marines died in separate incidents, adding to a toll that has topped 1,000 since the U.S.-led invasion.
Abizaid, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, said the elections will be carried out. But he warned that voting may not be possible in parts of Iraq where the violence is too intense.
"I don't think we'll ever achieve perfection and when we look for perfection in a combat zone we're going to be sadly disappointed," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Abizaid compared the situation in Iraq to the disputed U.S. presidential election in 2000 that put George W. Bush in the White House following a protracted fight that ended up in the Supreme Court.
"I don't think Iraq will have a perfect election. And if I recall, looking back at our own election four years ago, it wasn't perfect either," he said.
He said the goal is to have successful voting in the "vast majority of the country."
"We're going to have to fight our way all the way through elections," he said, "and there'll be a lot of violence between now and then."
He spoke of a major offensive before the election, with U.S. and Iraqi forces doing "whatever's necessary to bring areas in Iraq under Iraqi control."
Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a road map to the coming offensive. He said the military likely will tackle the Sunni Triangle (search) cities of Ramadi and Samarra before attempting to restore order in nearby Fallujah, which Powell called "the tough one."
"We don't like the situation in Fallujah," he said on a Sunday cable news show.
"The other ones, I think, are more manageable. Ramadi and Samarra, I think we'll get those back under control, and then we'll have to deal with Fallujah," Powell said.
Also Sunday, Powell said the insurgency was becoming more violent as elections near.
"It's getting worse," he said on ABC's "This Week." "They are determined to disrupt the election. They do not want the Iraqi people to vote for their own leaders in a free, democratic election."
Powell said planning is under way for an Iraqi conference, possibly next month, of the world's leading industrialized nations and regional powers, including Iran and Syria.
"This was a way to reach out to Iraq's immediate neighbors and persuade them that this is the time to help Iraq, so that the region can become stable," Powell said.
Including the Group of Eight (search) powers, he said, "adds a little bit more oomph to the conference" and brings in nations that could contribute "more in the way of resources."
He said officials were aiming to hold the conference in October in Jordan or Egypt.
U.S. officials have expressed conflicting opinions about whether all Iraqis will be able to vote.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Congress on Friday that the elections must be held throughout the country, including areas gripped by violence. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that if insurgents prevent Iraqis from voting in some areas, a partial vote would be better than none at all.
Asked about Rumsfeld's comments, Powell repeated the State Department's assertion that all Iraqis must have the chance to vote if the election is to be credible.
"You know, there will be polling stations that are shot at. There will be insurgents who will still be out there who will try to keep people from voting," he said.
"But I think what we have to keep shooting for and what is achievable is to give everybody the opportunity to vote in the upcoming election, to make the election fully credible, and something that will stand the test of the international community's examination," Powell said.
Abizaid also was asked about President Bush's suggestion that criticism of the war by Democrat John Kerry would help to "embolden the enemy."
Abizaid responded that he hoped that some day Iraqis will engage in similar sorts of debates.
"I believe debate in our country is what our country is all about," he said. "That there's a debate back home is a good thing for our country."