A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq last week attributed the increase in violence at least partly to terrorists who want to influence the American vote.
His comments Thursday echoed those made by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney two days earlier on conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh's radio show, which is carried on the Armed Force Radio network in Iraq.
Brig. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad and head of the U.S. forces information operations branch as well as its public affairs unit, Thursday described several reasons why violence in Iraq is up despite a four-month offensive called Operation Together Forward meant to bring Baghdad under control. One of those, he said, was the American political calendar.
"We also realize that there is a midterm election that's taking place in the United States and that the extremist elements understand the power of the media; that if they can in fact produce additional casualties, that in fact is recognized and discussed in the press because everybody would like not to see anybody get killed in these operations, but that does occur," Caldwell said.
On Oct. 17, Cheney told Limbaugh: "I was reading something today that a writer -- I don't remember who -- was speculating on increased terrorist attacks in Iraq attempting to demoralize the American people as we get up to the election. And when I read that, it made sense to me. And I interpreted this as that the terrorists are actually involved and want to involve themselves in our electoral process, which must mean they want a change."
In tight races across the country, the Republican Party faces the possible loss of a majority in both houses of Congress.
A spokesman for Caldwell, Maj. Douglas Powell, told United Press International Thursday the comment was not based on intelligence, but rather what Caldwell knows in general about the enemy in Iraq.
"We have a thinking enemy who is aware of how American politics works and how the American public reacts to events," Powell said Thursday.
By Friday, the story had changed. According to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician, Multi-National Forces Iraq reported that Caldwell based his comments on insurgent Web sites which say they need to attack "during this period."
That period may be interpreted as the run up to U.S. elections, but now is also Ramadan, Islam's holy month -- a time when violence has increased in Iraq in each of the last three years.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told UPI he doubts there is a correlation between the U.S. election and the increase in violence in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
"I hope they are right, but I see no basis for it in the previous three-and-a-half years of experience in Iraq," O'Hanlon said. "We did not see a spike before the November 2004 (presidential) election. We have not seen big spikes before other major political milestones. Sure, you can see slight increases in violence due to such things, but the big increases are generally due to changed American and Iraqi army tactics. Increased engagements with the enemy lead to greater casualties on all sides.
"Political events do not in my experience appear to be big drivers. I'd love to be proven wrong this time, because that would imply a reduced level of violence after Nov. 7, but I'd be very surprised if that happened on a major scale," O'Hanlon said.
In a new report published by the Johns Hopkins University and Brookings, researcher Victor Tanner and his Iraqi colleague -- who uses a pen name to protect his identity -- analyze the complex nature of the sectarian violence that now grips Baghdad. More than 5,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the city since May, most of them execution style.
The report describes factions motivated as much or more by their own quest for power, the evening of scores on a neighborhood level, and sheer thuggery, than it does a central strategy driven by geopolitics or the American election cycle.
That said, Tanner told UPI not to "underestimate the political acumen of the radical armed groups on both sides."
That Caldwell commented on the American election raised eyebrows as well. Military personnel are prohibited by both law and policy from using their "official authority or influence to affect the course of outcome of an election."
Caldwell stopped short of advocating for Republican retention of power, but the implication of his comment -- that terrorists in Iraq want to affect the outcome of the U.S. election -- makes that suggestion.
"In my opinion, Gen. Caldwell's statement crosses over the line into political partisanship," said Diane H. Mazur, a former Air Force officer and University of Florida law professor.
Caldwell's office did not respond to UPI's inquiry about the potential political implications of his statement.
Limbaugh's show was not the first time Cheney has suggested terrorists have picked favorites in the upcoming election.
In August, Cheney told wire service reporters that "al-Qaida types" were looking to break the will of the American people to stay and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He linked that al-Qaida effort to the Connecticut Democratic primary rejection of Iraq war supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed Cheney's logic.
"This situation isn't going well (in Iraq), and anyone that suggests that the people of Connecticut are somehow supporting terrorists, I don't think that's credible and that's what Cheney suggested," Reid said at the time.