How Much U.S. Help?

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President Bush and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi insisted last week that Iraq would go ahead with elections scheduled for January, despite continuing violence. But U.S. officials tell TIME that the Bush team ran into trouble with another plan involving those elections — a secret "finding" written several months ago proposing a covert CIA operation to aid candidates favored by Washington. A source says the idea was to help such candidates — whose opponents might be receiving covert backing from other countries, like Iran — but not necessarily to go so far as to rig the elections. But lawmakers from both parties raised questions about the idea when it was sent to Capitol Hill. In particular, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi "came unglued" when she learned about what a source described as a plan for "the CIA to put an operation in place to affect the outcome of the elections." Pelosi had strong words with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a phone call about the issue.

Rice spokesman Sean McCormack says, "I cannot in any way comment on classified matters, the existence or nonexistence of findings." But, McCormack says, "there have been and continue to be concerns about efforts by outsiders to influence the outcome of the Iraqi elections, including money flowing from Iran. This raises concerns about whether there will be a level playing field for the election. This situation has posed difficult dilemmas about what action, if any, the U.S. should take in response. In the final analysis, we have adopted a policy that we will not try to influence the outcome of the upcoming Iraqi election by covertly helping individual candidates for office." A senior U.S. official hinted that, under pressure from the Hill, the Administration scaled back its original plans. "This was a tough call. We went back and forth on it in the U.S. government. We consulted the Hill on this question ... Our embassy in Baghdad will run a number of overt programs to support the democratic electoral process," as the U.S. does elsewhere in the world.