President Bush Friday admitted the U.S. military cannot safeguard Iraqis in high danger areas during the upcoming national elections.
While Bush said military will do its best to give every Iraqi citizen the chance to vote, he acknowledged that guerrilla action could disrupt voting in four provinces.
“Four of the 18 provinces are places where the terrorists are trying to stop people from voting,” Bush said in Oval Office comments to reporters. “And the reason they’re trying to stop people from voting is because they understand that democracies stand in the exact opposite to what they believe.”
Bush also brushed off criticism from Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser in his father’s administration, who said the elections may deepen the Iraqi conflict instead of marking a turning point.
Scowcroft said the poll could increase divisions between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis who once ruled the country.
Asked his reaction to Scowcroft’s comments, Bush said: “Quite the opposite. I think elections will be such a incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people.”
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said on Thursday he could “not guarantee that every person who wants to vote … can do that safely.”
Bush said: “The job of the United States military is to do the best job we can to give every citizen the best chance they can to vote and to participate … And we’ll do the very best we can.”
Sunni politicians have urged that the elections be postponed because of attacks from Sunni Arab insurgents who are escalating bombings and assassinations to sabotage the national ballot, which majority Shi’ites are poised to dominate.
“I want everybody to vote,” Bush said when asked if he was worried about Sunni participation. “And I understand that parts of the Sunni area are being targeted by these killers. And their message is, ‘If you vote, we’ll kill you.’ But the real message is that, ‘We can’t stand democracy.”‘
Officials believe the election will be legitimate even if not everyone votes. A senior Bush administration official said “there will be some people who won’t vote, but many people will.” Those who do not vote for whatever reason “should not diminish the patriotism of those who do vote,” the official said.
Bush said he viewed the election “as a historical marker for our Iraq policy” and that it was a sign of progress that Iraqi turnout was a subject of debate rather than whether the election would be held at all.
“It wasn’t all that long ago that a lot of people said Iraqi people will never vote at all. I think it’s constructive now we’re beginning to worry about the size of the turnout,” he said.
Bush said a Pentagon team was going to Iraq to conduct a review of the U.S. military’s entire Iraq policy to prepare for the post-election period, when those elected to Iraq’s national assembly will begin writing a constitution, and work to train Iraqi forces that so far have had at best an uneven performance in battle.
The team will be led by a retired four-star Army general, Gary Luck.
“That’s precisely why the assessment team is going to Iraq: to make sure that, at this historic moment in the history of Iraq, there is a focused, determined strategy to help the new government to stand up the forces necessary to defend themselves,” Bush said.