Bush to aid 'moderate' parties in Iraq election
The Bush administration plans to give strategic advice, training and polling data to what it deems as "moderate and democratic" Iraqi political parties with candidates running in the country's upcoming elections, government documents show.
The administration said its goal is to help the parties "compete effectively" in the campaign and "increase their support among the Iraqi people" in national, regional and provincial elections scheduled for January, according to the State Department documents obtained by Reuters on Friday.
The White House had no immediate comment on who would qualify for the party-building support and it was unclear from the documents who would make those determinations.
Non-governmental groups expected to take part in the efforts said they understood that religious groups and communist parties would be eligible for help.
President Bush has made the upcoming elections his top priority in trying to stabilize Iraq amid a worsening insurgency and to shore up support for the war at home.
Under pressure from lawmakers, the White House said last month that it would not try to influence the outcome of the elections by "covertly" helping individual candidates.
Instead, the administration said it would provide "strategic advice, technical assistance, training, polling data, assistance and other forms of support" to "moderate, democratically oriented political parties," according to the documents.
Bush and Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have vowed to push ahead with the nationwide elections despite the violence. To clear the way, Pentagon planners and military commanders have developed a strategy aimed at retaking towns and cities controlled by insurgents, a senior administration official said.
However, many experts in the private sector and in Congress are skeptical all of Iraq will be ready for elections in January. U.N. officials now authorize no more than 35 international staff in the country, and few of them are now working on the elections.
Political-party building efforts in Iraq will be overseen by John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, but much of the work would be done through two nongovernmental organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Both groups said on Friday that it was their understanding that religious groups, communist parties and others would be eligible for U.S. support under the program.
"It's designed to include parties that are participating in the country's emerging political process," said Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute.
Asked whether support could be extended to leaders such as rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has given mixed signals that he may be willing to disarm his militia and join a political process, International Republican Institute President Lorne Craner said, "If you're a violent party outside the process, this is not the right place for you."
The administration told lawmakers it will initially spend $30 million on the program, which will include weekly opinion polling of Iraqis, both nationally and in provinces. The polls will be used to identify "issues of interest to the Iraqi people ... and the strengths of the various political parties and candidates."
The State Department's intelligence agency will spent $1 million on its monthly polls to assess "which candidates and parties are attracting the most support from the Iraqi people."
After lawmakers objected, the White House was forced last month to scale back a plan proposing a covert CIA operation to aid U.S.-friendly candidates in the elections. White House officials said they were concerned that countries like Iran would try to influence the outcome.
Congressional aides said similar political party-building programs have been undertaken in Afghanistan, where the country's U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai, is the favorite to win in elections there on Saturday. The White House denies that U.S. support and protection gives Karzai an unfair advantage.