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Allawi Effectiveness Hinges on Credibility

Interim Iraqi leader echoes Bush. Democrats try to fuel skepticism about his message.

September 24, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has emerged as an impassioned witness for the defense in America's presidential election, unambiguously echoing President Bush's key arguments about Iraq and forcing Sen. John F. Kerry into the unusual position of tangling with a foreign head of state during the campaign.

During his visit to the U.S. this week, highlighted Thursday by his speech to Congress and a news conference with the president, Allawi offered almost exactly the same assessment of Iraq as Bush: Conditions are better than they appear, elections for a national assembly are on track, and his country is a crucial front in the global war against terrorism.

If Americans see Allawi as a credible messenger, that could boost Bush -- whose management of the war and the reconstruction of Iraq are under increasing fire from Kerry.

"Allawi's two most important messages are: 'It's working and the Iraqi people are behind it,' " said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. "If he can convince the public of those two things, it is going to be very helpful to Bush."

But Kull said it was unclear whether Americans would see Allawi as a reliable source, given the continuing violence in Iraq and his vested interest in portraying events there in the most positive light.

Democrats moved quickly to fuel skepticism, denouncing Allawi's message.

Although Kerry was relatively restrained in disputing the upbeat portrayal, some of his aides suggested that Allawi was simply doing the bidding of the Bush administration, which helped arrange his appointment in June.

"The last thing you want to be seen as is a puppet of the United States, and you can almost see the hand underneath the shirt today moving the lips," said Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry advisor.

White House officials denied scripting Allawi's remarks. The Iraqi leader has said he has no preference in the presidential race, but in interviews this week and his speech Thursday, Allawi forcefully rebutted virtually every major argument Kerry has made against the war.

"We are succeeding in Iraq," Allawi told Congress. And at their joint news conference, Bush signaled what could become a recurring campaign theme when he enlisted Allawi as an expert witness in the debate over Iraq. In response to skeptical questions about the war's progress, Bush in effect told voters that if they didn't believe him, they should listen to Allawi.

"He understands what is going on there," Bush said at one point. "After all, he lives there."

Allawi's visit has thrust him into the debate just as Iraq has returned to the center of the presidential race.

In a speech Monday, Kerry offered his most comprehensive indictment of Bush's strategy in Iraq, depicting the conflict as a distraction from the war on terrorism that had weakened U.S. security.

On Thursday, Kerry unveiled a new ad declaring, "We need a fresh start to fix the mess in Iraq."

Today, Kerry plans a speech spotlighting his argument that Bush's focus on Iraq has caused him to lose sight of other priorities in the struggle against terrorism. He also intends to elaborate on his own plan to combat terrorism.

Kerry aides acknowledge that they see this sharpening focus on Iraq as their best hope of erasing the president's lead. "We are standing in front of the door and Iraq is the key to opening the door," one top Kerry aide said.

Bush's standing has advanced in lock step with improved public attitudes about his decision to invade Iraq. The percentage of Americans who said they thought the war was the right thing to do has edged upward in polls since the spring, when public support plummeted amid the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and rising U.S. casualties.

But there is evidence that the recent surge of violence in Iraq is reversing that trend. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday, 52% of registered voters said they thought the war was not worth the cost; 47% said they did not think the war would end in "a victory for the United States," whereas 41% predicted it would.

It was precisely those doubts Allawi targeted this week.

Like Bush, he insisted that elections for a transitional national assembly would take place in January. He said the international media had discounted evidence of progress in the country, from a national polio vaccination campaign that he said had reached more than "90% of all Iraqi children" to what he claimed was the reestablishment of security in 15 of 18 provinces.

Denying a key Kerry criticism, Allawi in his speech Thursday insisted that "the training of Iraqi security forces is moving forward briskly and effectively." He repeatedly said Iraq didn't need more U.S. troops and dismissed the possibility of civil war raised in a recent National Intelligence Estimate, part of which was leaked to the media.

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