Iraqi minister can't guarantee election safety
Powell: Solid support for elections at Mideast conference
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's interim defense minister was quoted by an Arabic-language newspaper Tuesday as saying he cannot guarantee the safety of voters or candidates in the country's elections scheduled for January 30.
"You ask me as defense minister, will I be able to provide safety for candidates and voters? I say no, I have no plan until now," Hazem Sha'alan was quoted as telling London, England-based Asharq Al-Awsat.
"The Iraqi citizen doesn't know what elections are and doesn't know who the candidates are or who the voter is."
Sha'alan, a 57-year-old tribal leader with a background in economics and real estate, said he planned to run as an independent candidate in the elections for a transitional national assembly.
In the interview, he also referred to a "vile coalition" inside Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim government that he said is obstructing efforts to fund the new Iraqi army and pay pensions to former soldiers.
During a speech to Iraqi troops before the U.S.-led assault on Falluja earlier this month, Sha'alan criticized U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Arab leaders who raised concerns about the offensive, saying they did nothing to help Iraqis under Saddam.
Sha'alan was inspector general of Iraq's Real Estate Bank until 1985, when he was forced to leave the country because of his opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein.
He became a real estate broker in Britain and returned to Iraq after Saddam's ouster in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, serving as governor of Iraq's Diwaniyah province before being named defense minister in June.
Powell: Conference 'consensus'
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday there appears to be solid support for the Iraq elections among officials attending an international conference on the Middle East in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Asked whether conference officials had urged an election delay amid continued violence in Iraq, Powell said "if anything, there is a solid consensus."
Officials of Iraq's interim government were at the conference on its final day Tuesday.
In an interview with CNN, Powell expressed confidence that conditions in the Sunni Triangle and the rest of the country will be stable by January 30.
"We have significant forces over there, and the Iraqi forces are growing larger and stronger by the day, and hopefully we'll be able to impose order in the Sunni Triangle," Powell said.
The conference has pitted the United States and Britain against France, Germany and Russia. The two sides have been bitterly divided by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and have found themselves airing their differences at the meeting -- primarily behind closed doors. (Full story)
New military campaign
More than 5,000 U.S., British and Iraqi troops embarked on a new campaign Tuesday against insurgents in volatile Babil province near Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The assault, which followed the U.S.-led recapture of the western city of Falluja, is part of a campaign aimed at asserting the interim government's authority before the elections.
Iraqi SWAT security teams, backed by elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, pushed through Jabella in the Babil province and "captured 32 suspected insurgents, including a number of high-interest individuals, in a series of early morning raids," a U.S. military press release said.
Insurgent attacks increased in northern Babil in a counteroffensive during the Falluja offensive, the release said.
Other developmentsUnidentified gunmen killed Sheikh Ghalib Ali Latif al-Zuheiri, imam of Qibaa mosque north of Baghdad, in the Dhiyaba area of Miqdadiya, Diyala provincial officials said. Al-Zuheiri was a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni clerics that has called for a boycott of the January 30 elections to choose members of a transitional national assembly. It was the second apparent assassination of a Sunni Muslim imam in as many days. Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission has approved 180 political parties to run candidates in the elections, a commission spokesman said Tuesday. Among those approved was the Iraqi Islamic Party, which in the past has threatened to refuse to take part in the elections in protest against the anti-insurgent campaign in Falluja.Iraqi Red Crescent Society officials said they planned to visit Falluja on Wednesday to assess humanitarian needs and to coordinate activities. Security concerns have blocked the group from delivering supplies to Falluja since the two-week offensive there began November 7. As major fighting has virtually ended, the interim government has begun delivering relief supplies to the city. Iraqi and U.S. forces detained 38 people Tuesday during a raid near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, according to a U.S. military press release. The forces confiscated a variety of weapons and munitions, including assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, night-vision equipment, police radios, binoculars and various identification cards, the release said.
CNN's Ben Wedeman and Ingrid Formanek in Sharm el-Sheikh; Kevin Flower, Kianne Sadeq, Cal Perry and Faris Qasira in Baghdad; and Elise Labott in Washington contributed to this report.