Iraq's caretaker prime minister, Iyad Allawi, painted a resolutely upbeat picture of his country Thursday, insisting that the counterinsurgency was succeeding and elections would take place on schedule.
But his optimism was tempered by the suggestion, seconded by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that the landmark vote in January might not be a shining example of democracy. Rumsfeld even said not every Iraqi province may be able to vote, for security reasons.
In a speech to a joint meeting of Congress, Allawi formally expressed Iraq's thanks to America for the invasion. His speech echoed President Bush's campaign rhetoric on Iraq and included a point-by-point rebuttal of criticisms mounted by the Democratic challenger, John Kerry.
"It's a tough struggle, with setbacks, but we are succeeding," he said. "Thank you, America. We Iraqis are grateful to you, America, for your leadership and your sacrifice for our liberation and our opportunity to start anew." But he added that the January elections, when Iraqis are due to choose their own government for the first time, "may not be perfect."
"They may not be the best elections that Iraq will ever hold," Allawi said. "They will undoubtedly be an excuse for violence from those who disparage and despise liberty ... But they will take place and they will be free and fair." Rumsfeld went further, telling a Senate committee that some areas of Iraq might not be able to stage elections if security remained precarious. He said holding elections in "three-quarters or four-fifths of the country" would be better than no election at all. "Nothing's perfect in life, so you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet," he said.
Bush is adamant that the Iraq transition timetable should not be derailed by the mounting chaos of insurgency in the country.
Britain has already said more troops might be needed to police the vote, and Thursday Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, told Congress the same thing. He said he hoped Iraqi and other allied troops could fill the gap, but he could not rule out the need for American reinforcements.
Allawi rejected the general's comments, declaring: "Troops we don't need -- what we need to do is to train more Iraqis." Allawi said his government now commanded 100,000 trained and armed soldiers, militiamen and police and would have 125,000 by the beginning of next year. He claimed that 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces were sufficiently peaceful to hold elections immediately. In the remaining three, he said, there were only pockets of trouble.
News of Gen. Abizaid's comments seemed to take President Bush by surprise Thursday when he appeared at a joint press conference with the Iraqi prime minister. He said the general had not mentioned a request for more soldiers at a White House meeting that morning. But the president added: "If our commanders on the ground feel it's in the interests of Iraq's citizens to have more troops on the ground, we'll talk about it." Bush once more shrugged off a gloomy U.S. intelligence estimate in July on Iraq's future. The president said the National Intelligence Estimate merely reflected possibilities, "but what's important is for Americans to hear reality."
That reality, he said, was reflected in the views of Allawi. However, the Shiite former exile, who was appointed to his position in May, formerly ran the Iraqi National Accord, which was backed by the CIA and seen by most Iraqis as a Western stooge organization, according to a prewar British assessment. The description appears in a secret document prepared by senior officials in the Cabinet Office in March 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq. It reveals British officials' low opinion of the two main exile groups, one led by Allawi, the other by Ahmad Chalabi.