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US braces for possible surge in insurgent attacks
US Iraq WX109 5456106
Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III takes part in an interview at Camp Victory, Iraq, Wednesday, July 9, 2008. Lloyd, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq said he is preparing for the possibility that insurgents will try to spoil Iraq's parliamentary elections this fall by stepping up violence. - photo by Associated Press
    CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — The second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq said Wednesday he is preparing for the possibility that insurgents will try to spoil Iraq’s expected provincial elections this fall by stepping up violence.
    Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III provided no details on how coalition and Iraqi forces will approach the security challenge as voter registration proceeds this summer and polling stations are opened. Voting in all 18 provinces is intended to be held in October, but some people believe it probably will slip into November.
    In an interview with three American reporters at the main U.S. military headquarters on this dusty compound just west of Baghdad, Austin was asked if he expected a spurt in pre-election violence. That is what happened in previous balloting periods in Iraq during the five-year American occupation.
    ‘‘That’s certainly one of the things that we feel could happen,’’ he said. ‘‘And it certainly is one of the things we take into account as we do our planning and as you talk about what type of forces you need.’’
    Before earlier elections, the U.S. added forces; that appears unlikely this time. The question now is whether it could reduce forces, at a time when the future U.S. role in Iraq is an important element of the White House campaign. There now are 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
    In at least one respect, the absence of a plan to bolster the U.S. military presence is a positive sign. It indicates a growing U.S. confidence in the Iraqis’ ability to provide their own security — a necessary step toward ending dependence on American combat power and winding down U.S. military involvement.
    Will the Iraqi army and police, with primary responsibility for security during the parliamentary elections, be so focused on that nationwide mission that the insurgents will find soft spots to attack elsewhere?
    Austin gave no indication of concern about that.
    He spoke optimistically about the Iraqis security forces’ growing capability. In fact he gave them credit for successful security operations recently in the southern cities of Basra and Amarah that Austin said largely account for a decline in rocket and mortar attacks by Iranian-sponsored militia elements.
    Amarah purportedly is a hub for smuggling weapons to Iraqi Shiite extremists from Iran.
    Austin said he does not know whether the recent decrease in rocket attacks is a conciliatory sign from Iran, which has strengthened its influence in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite south, since the war began.
    ‘‘We can only judge by what we’re seeing here on the ground,’’ he said. ‘‘We have seen a decrease in the number of attacks.’’
    Asked about reports Wednesday that Iran test-fired nine long- and medium-range missiles, Austin said he is not concerned that Iran might use such weapons to attack American or Iraqi forces inside Iraq. He said his focus remains on keeping up pressure on Iraqi insurgent groups and enabling Iraqi government forces to grow and improve.
    Austin declined to say whether he thought overall conditions in Iraq had improved enough to permit Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in the country, to recommend that President Bush resume withdrawing U.S. forces. Petraeus is expected to deliver a recommendation in September, after making an assessment of conditions in the aftermath of the now-ending U.S. troop increase.
    Austin said the al-Qaida in Iraq group, identified by U.S. commanders as the chief threat to Iraqi stability, has been damaged badly in its former urban strongholds, but cannot be counted out completely.
    ‘‘Al-Qaida remains a dangerous element,’’ he said. ‘‘It still has some capability’’ and has shown many times before that it can replace leaders who are captured or killed, and to garner the resources it needs, he added.

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