Iraq's deputy prime minister has indicated for the first time that the much-heralded elections due in January could be derailed by the country's violent insurgency. Barham Salih said the authorities were determined to hold the vote, but admitted they would have to assess the security situation nearer the time.
"Holding free and fair elections on time is an obligation that we have undertaken towards the Iraqi people," he said. But he added: "Nearer the time, the Iraqi government, the United Nations, the independent election commission and the National Assembly will have to engage in a real and hard-headed dialogue to assess the situation." It is the first time a senior figure in the interim government has acknowledged that the dire security situation in large parts of the country could affect the political process.
Sunday, as U.S. troops widened their control of the insurgent bastion of Fallujah, Marines found what appeared to be the mutilated body of a Western woman. Only two foreign women are being held by kidnappers: Margaret Hassan, 59, the British-Iraqi director of the charity Care International, and Teresa Borcz Khalifa, 54, a Polish woman who has lived in Iraq for many years. One officer said he was "80 percent sure" the body was a Western woman. It was found in the street, covered with a cloth soaked in blood.
Meanwhile, Arab satellite TV network al-Jazeera, quoting unidentified sources, reported that an Islamist group had freed two female relatives of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, but were still holding his cousin hostage. An unknown Islamist group seized the prime minister's first cousin Ghazi Allawi, 75, along with his wife and daughter-in-law, in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Although the elections may be only weeks away, Salih said, he hoped that by then the violent rebellion that has gripped Iraq since America's invasion last year will have diminished. "My hope is we will have stabilized many of the areas that have become pockets of foreign fighters and insurgents, because it is vital that every Iraqi citizen is able to exercise the basic right to choose a government that has been denied to them for so long," he said.
Sunday, however, there was continued violence in other parts of the country -- including Mosul in the north, Ramadi and Baghdad -- and there was still fighting in some parts of Fallujah. U.S. and Iraqi troops went house to house through other districts looking for weapons and hidden fighters in the city, and soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division destroyed underground bunkers in the city's southeast used by insurgents to store supplies.
"The city has been seized," Gen. John Abizaid, of the U.S. central command, said. "We have liberated the city of Fallujah." But it could take several days of fighting to clear pockets of resistance, he added. Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said: "The perception of Fallujah being a safe haven for terrorists, that perception and the reality of it will be completely wiped off before the conclusion of this operation."
The U.S. military said 38 American soldiers had died in the six-day offensive to recapture Fallujah, and 275 had been wounded. Allawi said 400 insurgents had been arrested, while one American commander told the Associated Press that 1,200 insurgents had been killed. There was no information on civilian casualties, but a convoy of food and medical supplies brought on Saturday by the Iraqi Red Crescent was not allowed to enter the city. A second Red Crescent convoy will take food and supplies Monday to the thousands of refugees living in often appalling conditions in villages around Fallujah.
There is a growing concern that the minority Sunni community, from which the most extreme elements of the insurgency have emerged, will not take part in the elections. The influential Muslim Clerics Association has ordered a boycott of the vote, and the Iraqi Islamic Party, a mainstream Sunni political group, has pulled out of the government.
There is also the logistical problem of securing the estimated 7,000 to 9,000 polling centers across Iraq. Elections will be held for the 275-seat Iraqi parliament and for the Kurdistan regional assembly at the same time. "Holding elections will be a great challenge," said Salih, former prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government in Sulaymaniya.
Violence persisted in other areas. Insurgents seized control of the Sheikh Fatih police station in the northern city of Mosul, and also burned down the governor's house. At least six Iraqi National Guardsmen were killed and three injured. Sunday night explosions and heavy gunfire echoed across central Baghdad. A rocket landed near hotels and houses used by foreign contractors and journalists, although there appeared to have been no casualties. More than a dozen insurgents attacked the Polish Embassy in Baghdad with automatic weapons. No one was reported killed or wounded.
And U.S. helicopters and tanks fired at targets in Baiji, a northern city that houses Iraq's biggest oil refinery.