BAGHDAD -- A US general warned yesterday that insurgents may be planning ''spectacular" attacks to scare voters in the three weeks before Iraq's landmark elections, and Shi'ite and Sunni religious leaders voiced sharply divergent views on whether the vote should be held at all.
Air Force Brigadier General Erv Lessel, who is deputy chief of staff for strategic communications in Iraq, said the United States has no intelligence indicating specific plots, but he said American leaders expected a rise in attacks.
He said 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 said.
''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.
In Washington, President Bush expressed optimism about the Jan. 30 elections, saying they will be ''an incredibly 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 said, adding that the insurgents are trying to impede the elections because they fear freedom. He acknowledged security problems in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Meanwhile, a Pentagon official said the United States was holding 325 foreign fighters in Iraq, up from 140 before the November invasion of Fallujah, according to a report in today's New York Times, which did not identify the official.
The comments were made amid an escalating insurgency before the parliamentary vote believed to be led by minority Sunnis who dominated the country during Saddam Hussein's regime. In the election -- the first democratic vote in Iraq since the country was formed in 1932 -- the Sunnis are certain to lose their dominance to the Shi'ites, who account for 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population.
Reflecting Shi'ites' demands to hold the vote as scheduled, and Sunnis' calls for a boycott or postponement, two senior religious leaders expressed sharply differing views during Friday prayers.
''We want all the Iraqis to participate, we also insist on holding the elections as scheduled and to put these elections behind us as a way to end the conflict in Iraq," Saadr Aldeen al-Qubbanji, a leader of a prominent Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said in the southern city of Najaf.
''We all want elections, but we are seeking fair and free elections," Sheik Mahmoud Al-Somaidie of the Sunnis' Association of Muslim Scholars said in Baghdad. ''Those of us who are calling for postponement are seeking that for the benefit of the country. Elections have to be an Iraqi demand not the demand of the foreign countries."
The United States strongly opposes a postponement, insisting on holding the vote as planned.
This week has seen a string of assassinations, suicide car bombings, and other assaults that killed more than 90 people, mostly Iraqi security troops, who are seen by the militants as collaborators with the American occupiers. The insurgency is apparently intended to scare voters.
Yesterday, a police captain was killed in a drive-by shooting in Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad, police said. In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen killed a policeman walking near his house. And in the central city of Samarra, a roadside bomb exploded near a US military base, killing an Iraqi, police Captain Hashim Yassin said.
Also yesterday, a Marine was killed in a vehicle accident in Anbar Province, the US military said.
Meanwhile, the body of a civilian truck driver missing since April in Iraq has been found near the place where his convoy was ambushed. William Bradley, 50, lived in Chesterfield, N.H., before going to Iraq nearly a year ago to work for Texas-based Halliburton, which on Thursday announced the discovery of his remains.
He was in a fuel truck convoy that was ambushed near Baghdad on April 9.