Caution is voiced in U.S. ahead of Iraqi electionsWASHINGTON Four days before parliamentary elections in Iraq that the Bush administration has portrayed as a "significant milestone," a U.S. official and a senior Republican lawmakers cautioned Sunday against assuming that the vote would produce quick and dramatic improvement or a rapid U.S. withdrawal.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the elections would underscore the rising importance of the political process - and hopefully, of rising Sunni participation in that process - and should accelerate a gradual reduction in the military presence. He predicted that Sunni parties would win 40 to 55 seats in the 275-seat assembly, with no party gaining a majority. That would give the Sunnis a "critical role" in talks on a new constitution.
"Our hope and expectation is that violence and use of the military will become less important," he said on ABC. "I do anticipate a set of circumstances in the aftermath of the election where we can begin to reduce numbers significantly."
But, he said, "I do not anticipate that that change will take place very quickly. In the best of circumstances, it will take time and change incrementally." And he warned that a precipitous U.S. military withdrawal could lead to civil war.
Iraq's government, meanwhile, announced Sunday that it would close its borders, extend the nighttime curfew and restrict domestic travel starting Tuesday - two days before the main election day - to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote.
Voters will be choosing their first fully constitutional parliament since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein. The assembly, which will serve for four years, will choose a new government that U.S. officials hope can win the confidence of the disaffected Sunni Arab community - which is the foundation of the insurgency amid fears that the country's majority Shiites will dominate the country's future government.
A senior Republican lawmaker, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, welcomed the elections as "a huge sea change in the Mideast," but also cautioned against unalloyed optimism.
"I don't think we're going to have any major troop withdrawals anytime soon," he said on NBC. "The level of security that we'll need to leave behind, is not even close to being there."
Citing an array of problems in Iraq, Graham added, "For us to deny the fact that we are a long way from a secure Iraq needs to stop."
While administration officials have referred to the Dec. 15 elections as the last in a series of crucial political events pointing Iraq toward normalization and stability, a senior Democratic legislator, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, cited another crucial juncture ahead.
Once a parliament is elected, work will begin on amending the draft constitution. Sunnis count on these negotiations to ensure them a larger role.
The reworked constitution, Biden said, "is either going to be a document of division, or a document of unity." If the former, he added, "then I think we're in real trouble." He suggested enlisting regional countries and major powers to press Shiites and Kurds to allow a significant Sunni role.
Republicans and Democrats continued their bitter squabbling over the war. Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who roiled Washington by calling for a quick troop withdrawal from Iraq, refused Sunday to back away, despite disagreement within his party.
"The majority of people in Iraq are in favor of us getting out now," he said on CBS. "We have become the enemy."
Many Democrats have found themselves trying to craft a middle-ground message critical of the president's war-handling - as polls show most Americans are - but opposed to premature troop pullout.
"This was a war of choice, not of necessity, but getting it right is a necessity and not a choice," Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said on NBC. "And we cannot leave chaos."
As support for the war has declined, some Republicans have been outspokenly critical. Graham, a senior member of the Senate armed services committee, was blunt in his criticism Sunday, while opposing a quick withdrawal. At "every turn, we've underestimated how hard it would be," he said on NBC. "We've paid a price in the past for our missteps."
But he insisted that progress can be cemented only through perseverance. "The worst thing we could do, in my opinion, is leave this infant democracy behind without the ability to have a reasonable chance to develop," he said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, predicted that the Senate and White House would soon reach agreement on a proposal to ban the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" in interrogations of terror suspects.
The administration has said it needs a range of interrogation tools to stop potential attacks. But it asserts that the United States "does not torture."