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Potemkin Nation

The positive portrait of Iraq painted by President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi runs counter to the harsh reality.

September 24, 2004

President Bush and the U.S.-installed interim prime minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, provided upbeat portraits of the war-ravaged nation Thursday, proclaiming elections on the horizon and democracy not far off.

Their visions seemed utterly at odds with reality.

This week's beheadings of foreigners, the daily attacks on U.S. troops and the suicide car bombs that have killed hundreds of Iraqis undercut the verbal sunshine produced in the White House Rose Garden. Add the report of disquieting comments from an Iraqi more popular and powerful than Allawi -- Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- and the picture grows bleaker.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Sistani was concerned that elections scheduled for January might be delayed. (Allawi said there would be no postponement.) More ominously, Sistani was reported to have threatened to withdraw his support for the elections unless changes were made to increase the representation of Shiites.

An election without support from the respected cleric would be a farce.

It was Sistani who brokered the agreement last month that ended the siege in the holy city of Najaf, where a younger, more militant cleric challenged U.S. and Iraqi forces. Allawi neglected to mention Sistani's role when the prime minister cited a peaceful Najaf as a mark of progress.

Allawi's thanks to U.S. troops -- more than 1,000 of whom have died -- was heartfelt and welcomed by those witnessing his earlier speech to a meeting of Congress. But his contention that 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces are safe enough to hold elections today ignored the inability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to enter a number of cities held by Sunnis.

Iraqis are used to seeing Allawi show up at massacre sites and vow vengeance. But in tailoring his message to a U.S. audience, he stressed elections more than he usually does in Baghdad. Bush too keeps pointing to elections as a sign that Iraq is on the road to democracy.

But there's agreement among realists, including U.N. officials needed to help with the balloting, that without more security, meaningful elections cannot be held. And Iraqis who experience oil pipelines being blown up, sewage flowing in the streets and electricity more off than on would blink at the picture drawn by Allawi.

Bush conceded the war was "tough work" but said several times that Iraq was a key battleground in the war on terror -- another theme in his reelection campaign. He also said he could not understand why many Americans felt they were less safe, not more, since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He should reread a classified intelligence report prepared in July warning that the situation was bad and could easily get worse. Bush said Thursday that he was wrong to call the report a "guess" rather than an "estimate," but he still clearly doesn't buy it. Yet other analyses have been equally gloomy.

The administration ignored warnings before the invasion about the possible consequences and shunned advice on how to avoid disaster.

Bush, his advisors and Allawi need to stop thinking that their hopes will transform chaos into peace and face the reality of a country in increasing turmoil.

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