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Heady U.S. Goals for Iraq Fall by Wayside

September 27, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Despite continuing violence and instability, President Bush has stuck doggedly to his central message on Iraq: There is no need to change course because the administration's plan for planting democracy in the Middle East is working.

Yet behind the unwavering public posture, there is evidence that the Bush administration has altered its approach. It has lowered its hopes for the type of democracy that can be achieved, changed course on its plans to privatize Iraq's economy and reordered its priorities by devoting more money to improving security as fast as possible.

Gone -- at least for now -- is the lofty ideal of Iraq serving as a free-market democratic model that would ignite the forces of change throughout the Middle East and lay the seeds of a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said administration officials have told him privately that they have lowered their expectations. "They've definitely recalibrated their goals," he said. "One of them told me: 'When we went in there, I thought we would build American-style democracy. Hell, I'd be happy with Romanian-style democracy now.' "

"It doesn't mean you abandon" the Iraqis, Kolbe added. "It reflects what is realistic, what is doable." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld echoed that sentiment Friday, when asked what it would take for the United States to declare victory and begin to withdraw.

"Any implication that that place has to be peaceful and perfect before we can reduce coalition and U.S. forces I think would obviously be unwise because it's never been peaceful and perfect and it isn't likely to be," he said. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice this month defined success in more modest terms than the administration used in the war's early stages. "Success will be an Iraqi government that has gone through the legitimacy process of being elected and an Iraqi government that can defend itself," she said.

Many experts believe the administration will be hard-pressed even to pull that off.

Chaotic security conditions in large parts of the country and delays in preparation are jeopardizing plans to hold national elections in January, according to administration officials and independent experts.

Early last week, opinions within the administration appeared to be divided, with some privately suggesting that election day should slip into the spring while others argued for keeping to the current timetable, even if the balloting is incomplete. The administration now appears to be willing to risk holding an election marred by violence and, quite possibly, incomplete balloting to keep to its schedule.

On Thursday, Rumsfeld became the first senior figure in the administration to suggest that elections should proceed even if violence prevents voting in as much as a quarter of the country.

"Nothing's perfect in life," he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Bush and Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who visited the United States last week, said voting for a national assembly would go ahead as scheduled in January.

Days earlier, however, administration officials dealing with Iraq appeared resigned to a delay. "The way things are going, the fact that the U.N. has not come forward with its support means we may have to settle for the spring," said a State Department official who declined to be named.

The official indicated that initial timetables had called for thousands of United Nations election workers to be deployed around the country by this time, registering voters, setting up polling stations and training Iraqis to staff them.

Friday, a U.N. spokesman in New York said just eight non-Iraqi staff members were in the country preparing for the balloting and that no significant buildup would begin until a military force assigned to protect election workers was in place.

Carlos Valenzuela, the top U.N. electoral official in Iraq, has said that the election timetable is very tight and that preelection violence "could be a show-stopper." Further complicating matters for U.N. officials is that three elections -- for a national assembly, regional councils and a Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq -- are to be held simultaneously.

Independent specialists following Iraq worry that an election so flawed that its legitimacy becomes a major issue could set back, rather than promote, democracy in the region.

The Bush administration has declined to say what the minimum acceptable conditions would be. "I don't think anybody's thinking in those terms right now," said a senior official who declined to be identified by name. "In December, we'll know where we are."

The stakes are high. A successful vote would constitute a strategic setback for insurgents who are trying to bring down Allawi's government and force the Americans to leave.

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