Penetrating the fog of war in Iraq is extremely difficult these days. Add in another layer of fog -- the fog of politics -- and truth disappears.
Standing in the White House Rose Garden last week, the president and Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi interim prime minister, painted a sunny landscape of a nation heading toward liberty and democracy. The country is largely secure, with only a few pockets of insurgents and terrorists fighting a rearguard battle. Elections in January, the two men agreed, would take place on time.
Let's blow away some of the fog.
Since last summer, when the transitional government was formed, the American strategy for Iraq has been about creating stability, not democracy. Allawi was picked because he is a would-be strongman, a former Baathist who can rally elements of the old regime's military and police forces, along with new trainees, to impose order.
Allawi now mouths the president's happy talk about democracy. But his first impulse on coming to power revealed his true aims -- he talked of imposing martial law and postponing elections for security reasons.
Under the circumstances, opting for stability is the right decision. Unfortunately the White House clothes its real policy in rhetoric about democratizing the Middle East.
That's why a massive offensive to crush the Sunni insurgency that now controls several provinces in Iraq is being postponed until after the U.S. elections. The intense violence and high American casualties that are sure to come with that offensive would penetrate even the thickest fog.
The CIA's latest Iraq assessment warns that a tenuous stability may be the best outcome -- civil war would be the worst. The president thinks that is guesswork. He said his optimism comes from listening to Allawi, who told reporters that, from Basra to Kurdistan, "it's safe, it's good."
Let's take Basra, the southern city administered by the British and considered a realm of calm in Iraq. That was true a year ago, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., but now it is too dangerous to even stay in town. The British base in al-Ammara sustained more than 400 direct mortar hits last month, and the battalion engaged in the most intense contact it has experienced since the Korean war.
This reality is prompting talk of postponement of elections. But they likely will -- and should -- take place. The question is what kind of elections.
Allawi and other exile groups who formed the earlier American-installed Iraqi government are trying to rig them to hold on to power. Voters will not choose individual candidates but will pick party slates. As they did in forming an interim legislature this summer, the exile parties -- which include some Shiite factions -- plan to form one unified slate which will force everyone else into the background. The Shiite clergy fears the coalition will divide seats among themselves according to a power-sharing formula that does not reflect the actual population.
That prompted Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most popular figure in the country, to warn United Nations officials that he might call for an election boycott.
Al-Sistani is the main roadblock to Allawi's strongman bid. He brokered a deal to stop the recent assault on Shiite radical forces holed up in the holiest Shiite shrine in the world.
The Bush administration's bet on Allawi is at best a short-term strategy. What Iraq needs is a government that has the legitimacy to rule. If that doesn't happen soon, things will slide deeper into widespread insurgency. And if the moderate Shiite clergy join that rebellion, all bets are off for stability.
Living amid the fog, as we know here, can be refreshing. But sooner or later, the fog burns off.
Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.