Why Iraq's Not Getting Better

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CONTINUING VIOLENCE: A car damaged by an explosion outside a police station in Baghdad

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More plausible, perhaps, is the suggestion on Wednesday by acting president Ghazi al-Yawer that the poll would go ahead unless the United Nations suggested it be canceled — and UN secretary general Kofi Annan on Wednesday said bluntly that credible elections could not be held on the basis of current conditions.

To make Iraq safe for voting, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies would have to launch frontal assaults to retake the "no-go" areas of the Sunni triangle. U.S. commanders are already saying it was a tactical mistake to have left the insurgents in control of towns that have become sanctuaries. But the reason for doing so in each instance was that U.S. military actions had the effect of turning more of the civilian population against the American presence — and, by extension, weakening the legitimacy of the government it installed. It's worth remembering that each time U.S. forces pulled back from the confrontations in Najaf and Fallujah, they were being implored to do so by many of the Iraqi politicians they'd put in power.

Getting the Sadrists on board is a second major challenge ahead of elections. Their capacity to disrupt order in Baghdad and throughout the Shiite south is by now well-established, although as a popular Shiite movement they have a lot more to gain from participating in elections than do the Sunni insurgents. (Shiites make up more than 60 percent of the population, whereas Sunni Arabs comprise less than 20 percent.) Sadr's game is not necessarily to prevent elections, but to ensure that, at some point, his party wins the lion's share of the Shiite vote.

To the extent that there is a Shiite political consensus, it is personified in the demand by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that Iraq's transition be managed by a democratically elected government, and that such a government be elected forthwith. Sistani had previously threatened massive street demonstrations to ensure that such a poll be held immediately, and it took UN intervention to coax him into accepting the January date. Sistani on Wednesday reiterated his demand that the poll go ahead on schedule, his remarks a reminder that further delay could bring new political instability.

U.S. officials are no longer projecting much optimism about bringing the insurgency under control any time this year, which means that by early next year, the occupant of the White House will be facing more least-worst choices in Iraq. Strategic analysts warn it will be years before U.S. troops will be in a position to leave Iraq. There's little sign of that reality on the U.S. presidential campaign trail, of course, where optimism is the order of the day — be it from President Bush vowing that things are getting better, or John Kerry saying they're not, but that he'll magically conjure legions of allied troops to lighten the Americans' load. There may yet be some irony in the fact that so much of the U.S. presidential race was initially focused on Vietnam. That, too, was a generational war.

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