BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military predicted Thursday that violence would increase around Iraq as final results from last month's elections are released and political groups forge ahead with forming a new government.
Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition force, said a series of "horrific attacks" that killed at least 500 people since the Dec. 15 elections were an indication that insurgents were trying to take the opportunity of the transition to a new government to destabilize the democratic process.
"As democracy advances in the form of election results and government formation, and as the military pressure continues, and the pressure generated by political progress increases, we expect more violence across Iraq," he said at a news briefing.
Final election results are expected early next week.
Alston said that as a new government starts coming together, "those committed to seeing democracy fail will see this time of transition as an opportunity to attack the innocent people of Iraq."
He said the recent attacks were part of an "attempt to discredit and derail the progress of the Iraqi people"
At least 121 people died last week in twin suicide attacks against a Shiite shrine in the holy city of Karbala, and a police recruiting center in Ramadi. A day earlier, 32 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a Shiite funeral in Muqdadiyah. Another 29 died in a Monday attack against the Interior Ministry in Baghdad.
Sixteen U.S. troops died from hostile action, and eight died in a helicopter crash, the cause of which has yet to be determined.
All the attacks, Alston said, had an aim "to incite fear and create doubt in the people of Iraq in an attempt to suffocate progress toward a better future for Iraq."
He added that "many innocent Iraqis were undeniably targeted by terrorists. The increase in attacks across Iraq this past week clearly indicates that al-Qaida and others terrorists still have the capability to surge."
Alston denied allegations by leading Shiite politicians that the United States had restricted the ability of Iraqi security forces to deal with insurgents.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, has both blamed hard-line Sunni groups of inciting the violence, and said the Defense and Interior ministries — both dominated by Shiites — were being restrained by the U.S-led coalition.
"I would tell you that I do not see any additional procedures that have been employed, or I should say additional restrictions or additional requirements that have been levied on the Iraqi security forces that would tie their hands," Alston said.
But he did say that "we have always had coordinating instructions with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. As the situation changes and they grow in capability those policies are re-evaluated in order for us to be as effective and for them to be as effective as we possibly can."
Sunni Arabs have complained that often brutal methods used by Interior Ministry forces have already pushed Iraq to the brink of sectarian war. Hundreds of abused prisoners have recently been discovered, mostly in prisons operated by the Interior Ministry — prompting complaints from U.S. officials.
SCIRI and its former military wing, the Badr Bridage militia, last week hinted they would carry out reprisals if the violence did not stop. Although the insurgency is dominated by Sunni Arabs, much of the violence since the elections has been claimed by Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq.
Alston said al-Zarqawi's bloody tactics were alienating him from the homegrown insurgency.
"We have not seen sustained collaboration between Zarqawi's elements and other elements in Iraq. We have seen occasional marriages of convenience for limited objectives," Alston said. "But Zarqawi has fewer and fewer friends in Iraq."
Alston said that al-Zarqawi's targeting of civilians was turning "the people of Iraq against his cause."
Violence this week has dropped considerably as the country celebrates Eid al-Adha, a four-day Islamic holiday. No violence had been reported as of midday Thursday.
U.S. Army soldiers killed six insurgents Wednesday in Baghdad, including two with suicide belts, the military said. They arrested one man and confiscated weapons.
Gunmen killed four people near Mosul on Wednesday, including a former senior member of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. A roadside bomb also killed two policemen outside Samarra, north of Baghdad. And the U.S. military said seven bodies "with evidence of torture" were found at a sewage plant.
On the political front, Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front, objected to remarks by a Shiite leader suggesting that the new constitution would not be changed.
Al-Mutlaq said the minority Sunni Arabs were persuaded to participate in the elections by the provision that allows Iraq's constitution to be amended during the first four months of the new government.
Shiite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — warned Wednesday that his governing religious bloc would not allow substantive changes to the constitution, including the provision that leaves provincial governments strong and the central government weak.
"We have a group of established principles which we will never give up. Any coalition should be based on these principles," he said. "The first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution. This constitution was endorsed by the Iraqi people."
A key Sunni demand is weaker federalism and a stronger central government. The constitution now gives most power — including control over oil profits — to provincial governments. The Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north control nearly all of Iraq's oil, while Sunni Arab areas have little.
"If they do not accept key amendments to the country's new constitution, including the regions issue, then let them work alone and divide the country, as for us we do not accept this," al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press by phone from Amman, Jordan.
Al-Mutlaq is the country's third most powerful Sunni Arab politician. Adnan al-Dulaimi and Tarek al-Hashimi, the two main leaders of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front, hadn't yet responded to Hakim's declaration.
Al-Hakim also marked the Islamic holiday by calling Wednesday for God's help in fighting the insurgency.
"We ask God's blessing to send a strong stroke against the terrorists," he said, adding that combatting the insurgency would be the top priority of the new government. Sunni Arabs make up the core of the insurgency.
The cleric also heads the governing United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite religious bloc with a strong lead in the elections, according to preliminary results. But the 130 of parliament's 275 seats it is expected to receive won't be enough to avoid forming a coalition government with smaller parties.