Washington The Bush administration plans to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities in Iraq until after U.S. elections in November, say administration officials, mindful that large-scale military offensives could affect the U.S. presidential race.
Although American commanders in Iraq have been buoyed by recent successes in insurgent-held towns such as Samarra and Tall Afar, administration and Pentagon officials say they will not try to retake cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi -- where insurgents' grip is strongest and U.S. military casualties could be the greatest -- until after Americans vote in what is likely to be a close election.
"When this election's over, you'll see us move very vigorously," said one senior administration official involved in strategic planning, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Once you're past the election, it changes the political ramifications" of a large-scale offensive, the official said. "We're not on hold right now. We're just not as aggressive."
The other election
Any delay in pacifying Iraq's most troublesome cities, however, could alter the dynamics of a different election: the one in January, when Iraqis are to elect members of a national assembly.
With only four months remaining, U.S. commanders are scrambling to enable voting in as many Iraqi cities as possible to shore up the poll's legitimacy.
U.S. officials point out that there have been no direct orders to commanders in the field to pause operations in the weeks before the Nov. 2 election. Top administration officials in Washington are simply reluctant to sign off on a major offensive in Iraq at the height of the political season.
Asked for comment, White House spokesman Taylor Gross said, "The commanders in the field will continue to make the decisions regarding military operations and will continue to assist the Iraqi people in the pursuit of a more peaceful and safer Iraq."
Pentagon officials said they saw a benefit to holding off on an offensive in the Sunni Triangle, the insurgent-dominated region north and west of Baghdad. By waiting, they allow more time for political negotiations and targeted airstrikes in Fallujah to weaken insurgents.
"We're having more impact with our airstrikes than we had expected," said a senior Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We see no need to rush headlong with hundreds of tanks into Fallujah right now."
Because U.S. commanders no longer have carte blanche to run military operations inside Iraq, they must seek approval from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has his own political future to consider, even though he owes his position to the United States.
Larry DiRita, a Pentagon spokesman, asked whether Allawi supported delaying the operations until after the U.S. election, said: "It's his view, and it's shared by the commanders, that the timing has to be based on the circumstances and nothing else."
U.S. officials said Allawi had signed off on a broad plan to retake insurgent-controlled cities in Iraq before the January election. Allawi approved the recent successful U.S. offensive into Samarra, which U.S. commanders considered necessary only after a local government installed by Allawi buckled under constant attack by insurgents.
Who's in charge?
Yet there has been occasional friction between U.S. commanders in Baghdad and the Iraqi government that took power after the U.S.-led coalition handed over sovereignty June 28.
In August, top U.S. officers in Iraq and Pentagon officials were angry when Allawi ordered a halt to a day-old, U.S.-led offensive against Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia as it holed up inside the sacred Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.
Allawi called the cease-fire to allow time for negotiations with al-Sadr that ultimately broke down. U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington argued that such frictions were just part of a gradual process of reducing Iraq's dependence on the U.S. military.
"We made a deal, and that's what you get when you set up an interim government," a senior military official at the Pentagon said. "But the alternative is not recognizing them."