Allawi Rides to Bush's Rescue

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Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi with Bush in the Rose Garden

For the White House, Thursday's visit by Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi couldn't have been more timely. Just as President Bush's relentlessly optimistic campaign-trail spin on Iraq was coming under fire not only from John Kerry but also from heavyweight Senate Republicans, here was an authentic Iraqi voice validating the Bush position. In response to critics charging that his rhetoric was hopelessly optimistic, Bush stood alongside Allawi and responded, "What's important for the American people to hear is reality. And the reality's right here in the form of the prime minister. And he is explaining what is happening on the ground." And, of course, Allawi's explanations jibed neatly with those of the Bush administration — the insurgency is the work of international terrorists who must be stopped; it is limited to small parts of the country; elections will go ahead as scheduled; Iraq is free and well on the road to democracy. You don't have to take my word for it, President Bush appeared to be saying. You can hear it from "the prime minister of a free and sovereign Iraq."

Whether or not American voters choose to believe the President — or to accept John Kerry's charge that Allawi is simply reading from the administration's script and distorting the reality — in the eyes of Iraqis and most of the international community Allawi does not personify the democratic will of a free people. That's because Allawi owes his appointment last June not to the Iraqi electorate, but to outgoing U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer. And his authority in Baghdad rests primarily on the backing of some 130,000 U.S. troops that remain in the country, and whose presence is viewed by many Iraqis as a sign that despite Bremer's departure, they remain under occupation. And on a number of key security decisions, ranging from the extent of an amnesty to be offered to insurgents to the question of whether to release two imprisoned women who'd served Saddam's germ warfare program (and whose freedom had been demanded by terrorists as the price for sparing the life of a hostage), the U.S. embassy appeared to have veto power. Despite the president talking up Allawi's credentials as the voice of a new Iraq, the former exile has yet to prove that his political standing along the Potomac can be matched along the Euphrates.

It is precisely because Iraq does not yet have a government whose legitimacy has been established among its own people that the question of the election scheduled for January has assumed so much importance. Allawi insisted that the election would go ahead — although, he warned, it would be imperfect — despite the suggestion by "some" that security conditions for holding a credible election simply don't exist right now. "Some" may have been a reference to the likes of Senator John Kerry and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, but ironically the suggestion that elections might have to be postponed for security reasons had first been mooted by Allawi himself upon taking office at the end of June. Still, now the prime minister remains "on message," reiterating that the election will be held in January, come what may.

The insurgency, Allawi said, is overblown by Western media coverage — in fact, he claimed, it is confined to three out of Iraq's 18 provinces, and most of southern and northern Iraq is tranquil enough to hold elections tomorrow. He might want to check in with the British troops in the "tranquil" south he described, because they tell the BBC that last month alone one base at Amarrah suffered 853 separate attacks, the most frequent combat experienced by a British army unit since the Korean war.

More importantly, Allawi emphasized, Iraqis are determined to fight the insurgents, and take over from American troops. Some 100,000 have already been trained, and more are on the way. Again, this analysis is quite congruent with the picture painted by the Bush administration, but others, such as the widely respected strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman, who bases his work mostly on conversations with U.S. commanders on the ground, suggest that when it comes to effective combat units that can be deployed alongside U.S. forces, only two or three battalions of Iraqis pass muster — i.e. no more than 2,500 troops.

Still, Allawi's presence lent important symbolic weight to the Bush administration's argument that it is in Iraq to help Iraqis free themselves. And his tough talk underscored the President's assurance on the campaign trail that Iraq now has a strong leader determined to tackle the insurgents.

By promising to hold the elections on schedule Allawi and Bush are opening themselves to a number of political risks. The United Nations has made clear that a credible election cannot be held under the current security conditions. Transforming the security situation will require a major military offensive between now and January, and General John Abizaid hinted in remarks on Capitol Hill Wednesday that securing an election would require more troops. In the best case scenario those would be newly-minted Iraqi troops or soldiers sent from other foreign countries, but he couldn't discount the possibility that more Americans may be needed. Pitched battles in rebel-held population centers also have a habit of turning the neutral civilian population against the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, as the experience of Najaf and Fallujah have shown. Then again, the risk of not holding the election on schedule may be even greater, since Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader of the majority Shiite community, has made clear he'll tolerate no further delay.

Security issues aside, holding an election also carries great political risk — for Allawi. Having no substantial domestic political base going into the job, it's far from clear that the prime minister would hold onto his office once Iraqis get to choose their leaders at the polling booth. One way around this problem being touted by those around Allawi is to put forward a single list of candidates among all of the parties involved in the provisional government. Such an arrangement would certainly improve Allawi's chances of making a good showing, although Sistani's having none of it. He views such a plan as an attempt to manipulate the election, and has warned he will call for a boycott if it goes ahead. Given the fact that the most influential body of Sunni clerics has already signaled its own intention to boycott, an election opposed by Sistani would almost certainly fail. The immediate impact of Sistani's rejection will likely be to persuade the major Shiite religious parties in Allawi's government, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to abandon any such joint slate. In every previous instance where the government's position has clashed with Sistani's, they've ended up siding with the cleric. And without the involvement of the two most popular parties in the provisional government on a joint slate, Allawi's chances of being elected to the office to which he was appointed by the U.S. would be considerably dimmed.

But the question of the Iraqi election will be settled only after Americans have held their own. And it is on that election that Allawi's visit may have made the greatest impact.