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Insurgents a tough challenge, Allawi says

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi salutes Iraqi lawmakers. His words about insurgents seemed more grim than his Washington statements.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi salutes Iraqi lawmakers. His words about insurgents seemed more grim than his Washington statements.
Marwan Naamani, Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In his first speech before the interim national assembly here, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi gave a sobering account on Tuesday of the threat posed by the insurgency, saying the country's instability is a "source of worry for many people" and that the guerrillas represent "a challenge to our will."

Hours later, the U.S. military said it had launched its second major offensive of the past week, sending 3,000 troops, some of them Iraqis, in a sweep across the Euphrates River south of Baghdad. Led by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the troops overran a suspected insurgent training camp and detained 30 people, the military said in a written statement. They also seized control of a bridge believed to be part of a corridor allowing insurgents to move between strongholds in central Iraq, the military said.

The push followed a much larger and deadlier weekend offensive in the insurgent-controlled city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been saying they intend to take back rebel territory this fall to lay the groundwork for general elections scheduled for January. The operation on Tuesday took place in northern Babil province, a region that once served as a munitions production base for the old Iraqi army and that has become a field of loosely knit insurgent cells in towns including Mahmudiya and Hilla.

Bisecting the area is Expressway 1, a crucial north-south artery nicknamed the Highway of Death because dozens of people have been ambushed and killed in small market towns along its length by insurgents and bandits.

In his speech, Allawi, who has cast himself as a tough leader since taking office in late June, insisted that elections would go ahead in January as planned, but he acknowledged there were significant obstacles standing in the way of full security and reconstruction. The nascent police force is underequipped and lacks the respect needed from the public to quell the insurgency, he said, and American businessmen have told him they fear investing in Iraq because of the rampant violence here.

Allawi's tone was a sharp departure from the more optimistic assessment he gave to the American public on his visit to the United States last month. At his stop in Washington, Allawi made several sweeping assertions to reporters about the security situation in Iraq, including saying that the only truly unsafe place in the country was the downtown area of Fallujah, the largest insurgent stronghold in Iraq, and that only three of 18 provinces had "pockets of terrorists." Allawi did not directly contradict those statements on Tuesday, but his latest words reflected a darker take on the state of the war.

"It is true that the security situation in our country is the first concern for you, and maybe for your inquiries, too," Allawi said to the roughly 130-member national assembly, which asked him combative questions following his speech in the nearly hourlong session.

The insurgents "are today a challenge to our will," he continued. "They are betting on our failure. Should we allow them to do that? Should we sit down and watch what they are doing and let them destabilize the country's security?"

Though Allawi joined President Bush last month in boasting of having 100,000 fully-trained and equipped Iraqi policemen, soldiers and other security officials, he acknowledged on Tuesday that there were difficulties in standing up an adequate security force.

"It's clear that since the handover, the capabilities are not complete and that the situation is very difficult now in respect to creating the forces and getting them ready to face the challenges," he said.

He added that "the police force is not well-equipped and is not respected enough to lay down its authority" without backing from a strong army.

Allawi's talk, given inside the fortified government headquarters on the west bank of the Tigris River, comes at a crucial juncture for the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. At stake now are the scheduled elections, which will only appear legitimate if there is a large voter turnout. In recent months, experts have voiced increasing doubts about the ability to hold such elections, given the instability here.

A nationwide poll of 3,500 Iraqis just completed by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies shows that the number of Iraqis who say they are "very likely" to vote in the elections has dropped to 67 percent, from 88 percent in June. About 25 percent say they would "probably" vote. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

More than 52 percent of those polled said they would not vote for a candidate who was not from their ethnic, religious or linguistic group.

Violence flared up in other areas on Tuesday. Two car bombs exploded in the city of Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, killing four Iraqis and igniting a gun battle between insurgents and U.S. soldiers, The Associated Press reported.

At noon, a car bomb exploded next to a military convoy in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least three civilians driving in a car behind the convoy, the U.S. military said. Right after the explosion, insurgents ambushed the convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. Four soldiers were injured and taken to a military hospital in Mosul.

Police officials in Mosul said Tuesday that they had discovered four headless bodies. The corpses were those of a local woman and her family, the officials said. The woman was running a prostitution house and was apparently decapitated, along with her relatives, by a fundamentalist Islamic group, they added.

Several mortar blasts rocked Baghdad in the morning. One shell landed at a passport office in the center of the city, injuring one person seriously, the police said. The mortar had been fired from a vehicle driving along a highway.

Hospital officials in Sadr City, a vast slum in northeast Baghdad that is overwhelmingly hostile to the U.S. occupation, said one person was killed in an overnight airstrike by the Americans. For weeks, the military has been deploying an AC-130 gunship and fighter jets over the area to try to rout the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The airstrikes continued late Tuesday night and early Wednesday, with explosions and the jackhammer sound of the AC-130's cannons heard for miles around.

Allawi said at his appearance on Tuesday afternoon that he had met earlier in the day with leaders in Sadr City and that the two sides were working to reach an agreement to end the presence of heavy arms in the area. In the evening, he appeared on Iraqi television and said local sheiks had agreed to allow police to patrol Sadr City. But a senior al-Sadr aide, Abdul Hadi Daraji, said in an interview that the al-Sadr organization did not agree with some of the conditions laid out by the government.