A top U.S. military official said Friday he expects that insurgents may try to carry out "spectacular" attacks as the Iraqi election draws near, while Sunni religious leaders called for unity but persisted in their demands that the vote be delayed.
The comments by Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel echoed a warning by Iraq's prime minister the day before that insurgent violence would only increase ahead of the Jan. 30 election for a National Assembly.
Hours after Prime Minister Ayad Allawi spoke, a roadside bomb killed seven U.S. soldiers in northwest Baghdad on Thursday, the deadliest attack on American forces since a suicide strike in Mosul 2 1/2 weeks ago. Two Marines also were killed in western Iraq.
A state of emergency, originally announced two months ago, also was extended Thursday for 30 days throughout the country except for the northern Kurdish-run areas. The decree includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government additional power to make arrests and launch military or police operations.
Lessel, deputy chief of staff for strategic communications, said the United States has no intelligence indicating specific plans for a major attack, but the insurgents' biggest weapon was their ability to instill fear.
"I think a worst case is where they have a series of horrific attacks that cause mass casualties in some spectacular fashion in the days leading up to the elections," Lessel told The Associated Press in an interview.
"If you look over the last six months they have steadily escalated the barbaric nature of the attacks they have been committing. A year ago you didn't see these kinds of horrific things," he said.
On Thursday, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, also acknowledged that security is poor in four of 18 Iraqi provinces but said delaying the vote would only increase the danger.
The soldiers with Task Force Baghdad were on patrol Thursday evening when their Bradley fighting vehicle hit the explosive, the military said in a statement. Everyone inside the Bradley was killed.
The two Marines killed in action Thursday were members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and lost their lives in Anbar province, which is home to the volatile city of Fallujah.
In the village of Naimiyah, hundreds of refugees from the destroyed nearby city of Fallujah demonstrated after Friday's prayers demanding that U.S. and Iraqi forces leave the city, open all the roads for residents to go back and pay compensation for damaged property.
The previous four days had seen a string of assassinations, suicide car bombings and other assaults that killed 90 people.
But Thursday's toll was the highest for the U.S. military in Iraq since a suicide bombing at a mess tent in Mosul on Dec. 21 killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers and three American contractors.
The latest deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to 1,350, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,063 died as a result of hostile action.
Allawi said he expected the number of attacks would rise before the Jan. 30 vote and called the decision on prolonging the state of emergency a precaution. He blamed former members of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s Sunni-dominated regime for the continuing violence.
"Saddam's followers, who have intensely shed the blood of our people and army, are still in action clandestinely, allying with a bunch of criminals, murderers and terrorists who are the enemies of our people and our progress," Allawi said Thursday during a ceremony to mark the national Army Day holiday.
The Bush administration and Allawi, a secular Shiite, have insisted that the elections go forward, despite calls from some Sunni religious leaders for a boycott. Sunni Arab political parties have largely withdrawn from the race because of security fears, particularly in western Iraq.
During Friday prayers, Sheik Mahmoud Al-Somaidie of the Sunnis' Association of Muslim Scholars called for unity among Muslims but repeated Sunnis' demand that the vote be delayed.
"Brothers, be aware of those who are using the elections issue to flare a sectarian war, there is only one country, only one Iraq, and we are all brothers in this country," he said. "Elections have to be an Iraqi demand not the demand of the foreign countries. For that reason, we have to be unified and agreed on one word to free Iraq from the occupation."
President Bush was optimistic Friday, saying the elections will be "a credibly hopeful experience," despite rising violence and doubts that the vote will bring stability and democracy.
"I know it's hard but it's hard for a reason," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office, saying that a small number of insurgents are trying to impede the elections because they fear freedom. "This is a big moment for the Iraqi people."
Foreign ministers of neighboring countries issued a statement Thursday saying they "stood strongly behind the interim government of Iraq" and "urged all segments" of society to participate in the elections. The call was backed by Jordan, a Sunni-dominated neighbor that had previously supported postponing the election.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson also said Friday that forces in the multinational coalition in Iraq have turned up no sign of a French journalist who has gone missing with her interpreter in Baghdad.
The French daily newspaper Liberation said it had not heard from Florence Aubenas and translator Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi were last seen Wednesday at her Baghdad hotel.