Now what?

September 19, 2004

IF "FREEDOM is on the march" in Iraq, as President Bush asserted last week, it's in grave danger of getting blown up, shot, kidnapped or otherwise caught in the resurgent violence plaguing that war-weary nation.

Mr. Bush's upbeat assessment of Iraq's progress toward becoming a peaceful democratic nation is sharply at odds not only with the reality on the ground, but also with the conclusions of a national intelligence estimate he received in late July.

Even with the appropriate grain of salt that must be taken with all U.S. intelligence analyses these days, the president's far sunnier predictions for Iraq becoming stable enough for American forces to withdraw sound as if he's trying to put something over on voters.

But it's not enough for Democratic challenger John Kerry to attack Mr. Bush for gilding the truth or for living in "a fantasy world of spin." Both candidates should level with voters about what they believe will be necessary to escape an Iraqi quagmire with minimal damage to U.S. security -- not to mention America's prestige and pocketbook.

More than 250 people were killed in Iraq last week in an upsurge of violence that included two car bombs aimed at Baghdad police forces, gun battles in the streets, retaliatory air strikes by U.S. warplanes and the abduction of two American contractors and one Briton in a daring dawn raid on their Baghdad home.

A prolonged state of such political, economic and security turmoil was the most optimistic of outcomes forecast by the classified intelligence estimate presented to Mr. Bush. The darkest of three potential scenarios for Iraq through the end of 2005 was a clash between Iraq's competing ethnic factions that leads to civil war.

Whether or not these assessments are valid, the situation today is volatile enough to raise serious doubts about whether the national elections intended to launch Iraq's new era of democracy can go forward in January as scheduled.

Meanwhile, Iraqi resentment at the American occupation will almost certainly worsen as the Bush administration redirects money intended to repair infrastructure, such as power and sewer lines, to beef up security.

Mr. Kerry talked months ago about seeking greater help in Iraq from the international community, and certainly Mr. Bush's go-it-alone approach has severely handicapped rehabilitation efforts.

But that partial solution seems increasingly beyond reach, as world opinion continues to sour.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a necessary ally in efforts to conduct Iraqi elections, expressed his frustration openly last week by branding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq "illegal."

For his part, though, Mr. Bush offers nothing so far but more of the same.

It's time to acknowledge that the current course isn't working, and to share with voters corrective measures that might have a better chance.

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