WASHINGTON - President Bush insisted yesterday that Iraqi insurgents had been dealt "a severe blow," but continued violence in Iraq and assessments by officials and analysts inside and outside government offer little hope that the country will achieve stability anytime soon.
Daily attacks on U.S. troops and allied Iraqi forces cloud prospects for nationwide elections set for Jan. 30, impede reconstruction, undermine Iraq's struggling economy and hamper delivery of services to the public, particularly health care, analysts say.
A cable late last month from the Central Intelligence Agency's Baghdad station chief warned of chaos unless Iraq sees a marked improvement on a number of fronts, including security and economic development, according to a U.S. official familiar with its contents but who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Last month's U.S.-led offensive against the insurgents' stronghold of Fallujah might have produced a tactical victory, but it failed to prevent a bloody new series of attacks that claimed scores of lives over the past week.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who recently completed his fourth visit to Iraq, told CNN on Monday that the situation has gotten "worse every time" he has been there. Although U.S. forces can defeat insurgents in certain cities, "we can't secure them," and the rebels move elsewhere, he said.
U.S. fighters "got the biggest hornet's nest, but the hornets have gone ... and set up nests other places," said Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
An October report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that Iraq's health care system had suffered rapid declines over the previous few months and that efforts to rebuild Iraq's economy, establish security, strengthen governance and provide services remained stalled. Events since then haven't altered the assessment, said co-author Bathsheba N. Crocker.
The variety of grim reports cast increasing doubt on the likelihood that all of Iraq's regions and ethnic groups will be able to participate freely in elections next month. But neither Bush nor the interim Iraqi leadership is willing to contemplate a postponement.
Bush, speaking yesterday to Marines and their families at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said, "We have dealt the enemy a severe blow," while acknowledging that "the enemies of freedom" had not been defeated. "They'll keep on fighting. And so will the Marine Corps," Bush said. "As election day approaches, we can expect further violence from the terrorists," who will "do all they can to delay and disrupt free elections in Iraq."
"Free elections will proceed as planned," Bush said.
The cable from the CIA's Baghdad station chief, first reported by The New York Times, was described by a U.S. official yesterday as a balanced and "unvarnished" assessment by "a field officer who is held in high regard." The document offered "a mixed picture," the official said. Without a marked improvement in security and economic development, along with political progress, "we're looking at violence and chaos," the official said.
The cable was the latest intelligence report to paint a more pessimistic picture of the outlook in Iraq than White House statements would suggest. A report by the National Intelligence Council in July laid out three possible scenarios, ranging from tenuous stability to a slide into civil war.
The Times reported that the latest CIA assessment drew a dissent from the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, John D. Negroponte, who claimed that more progress had been made in combating the insurgency than the station chief reported.
The cable was sent toward the end of the long-planned major offensive by American and Iraqi forces in Fallujah, a stronghold of Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein and Sunni Islamic militants who are believed to lead the insurgency. U.S. commanders called the offensive an overall success, saying it resulted in the death or capture of hundreds of insurgents.
But no sooner did U.S. forces begin to wind down the offensive in Fallujah than they had to search for insurgents who had scattered to other nearby cities and towns in central Iraq, where Sunnis are dominant. Meanwhile, other militants stepped up their attacks in Baghdad, with bombings in various parts of the city and mortar attacks into the fortified Green Zone, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy.
Bush administration officials maintained yesterday that they had not adopted an overly rosy picture of events in Iraq.
"Nobody is trying to sugarcoat anything. We recognize that we've got a tenacious and difficult insurgency to deal with," said State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli.
Another senior official, who declined to be identified, said postponing Iraqi elections would mean "a victory for the terrorists," leading them to "think they control the democratic process."
About 15 Iraqi political parties and several leading Iraqis, including former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi, recently called for postponing the vote, citing fears about security and lags in technical preparations. Also, Iraqi politicians apparently want more time to campaign.
In remarks reported by a Dutch newspaper Saturday, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who played a key role in crafting the political process in Afghanistan and Iraq, said elections could not be held "if conditions remain the same."
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin joined in the skepticism yesterday, saying during a televised meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who strongly backs the Jan. 30 vote, "To be frank, I cannot imagine how elections can be organized when the country is under full occupation by foreign troops."
Putin's remarks were viewed at least in part as criticism of the United States, which publicly disagreed with Putin over the election crisis in Ukraine.
Part of the problem with postponing the election is that few can argue a delay would result in improved conditions soon, says Daniel P. Serwer, a post-conflict stabilization specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"The weight of the ... evidence is in favor of going ahead. You can't be sure that the political and security circumstances would be any better" after a delay, Serwer said.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 1,279 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations and 9,765 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, 1,141 U.S. soldiers have died.
Army Staff Sgt. Henry E. Irizarry, 38, New York; died Friday in Taji when an explosive detonated near his vehicle; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, New York.
Army Spc. David P. Mahlenbrock, 20, Maple Shade, N.J.; died Friday in Kirkuk when he was clearing a route and an explosive detonated; assigned to the 65th Engineer Battalion, 25th Infantry Division (Light), Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
Army Sgt. Cari A. Gasiewicz, 28, Depew, N.Y.; died Saturday in Baqouba when explosives detonated near her convoy; assigned to the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion, 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, Fort Gordon, Ga.
Army Pfc. George D. Harrison, 22, Knoxville, Tenn.; died Thursday in Mosul when his vehicle came under fire; assigned to the 293rd Military Police Company, 3rd Military Police Battalion (Provisional), 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Ga.
Died Friday from injuries received in action in Anbar province; assigned to 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.:
Cpl. Binh N. Le, 20, Alexandria, Va.
Cpl. Matthew A. Wyatt, 21, Millstadt, Ill.
Killed Saturday in Mosul when their vehicle was attacked; assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), Fort Lewis, Wash.
Army Staff Sgt. Salamo J. Tuialuuluu, 23, of Pago Pago, American Samoa.
Army Sgt. David A. Mitts, 24, of Hammond, Ore.