All eyes are now riveted on the final 48 hours of the presidential campaign -- but glimpse beyond the flood of horse-race stories and the news from Iraq looks plenty grim. The New York Times reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued repeated warnings on Sunday that negotiations with the rebels who hold Falluja "are swiftly running out of time" before American and Iraqi forces massed around the town launch a major attack to retake control. A second Times report details a daunting backdrop for the planned offensive:
"The American military is making final preparations for an all-out invasion of Falluja in hopes that overrunning the insurgent sanctuaries there would quell the guerrilla war across Iraq and secure the city of 300,000 for the country's first democratic elections, scheduled for January.
"But it is the insurgents who have seized the offensive in recent weeks, and the number of attacks per day has risen by 30 percent or more since mid-October, at the start of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, military officials say. The relentless assaults have driven a wall between the foreign presence here and the rest of the country, with soldiers, diplomats and contractors holed up in their fortified hotels or bases while guerrillas move freely and strike at will."
And a third Times report has more than a dozen high level U.S. military and government officials expressing deep concern about "obstacles to victory" in Iraq.
"Senior American military commanders and civilian officials in Iraq are speaking more candidly about the hurdles that could jeopardize their plans to defeat an adaptive and tenacious insurgency and hold elections in January. Outwardly, they give an upbeat assessment that the counterinsurgency is winnable. But in interviews with 15 of the top American generals, admirals and embassy officials conducted in Iraq in late October, many described risks that could worsen the security situation and derail the political process that they are counting on to help quell the insurgency.
"Commanders voiced fears that many of Iraq's expanding security forces, soon to be led by largely untested generals, have been penetrated by spies for the insurgents. Reconstruction aid is finally flowing into formerly rebel-held cities like Samarra and other areas, but some officers fear that bureaucratic delays could undermine the aid's calming effects. They also spoke of new American intelligence assessments that show that the insurgents have significantly more fighters -- 8,000 to 12,000 hard-core militants -- and far greater financial resources than previously estimated.
"Perhaps most disturbing, they said, is the militants' campaign of intimidation to silence thousands of Iraqis and undermine the government through assassinations, kidnappings, beheadings and car bombings. New gangs specializing in hostage-taking are entering Iraq, intelligence reports indicate."
Colin Powell himself believes the reconstruction is in deep trouble. His warning to President Bush before the war about the "Pottery Barn" principle -- that if the U.S. were to "break" Iraq by invading, we would then own the combustible pile of shards -- now looks depressingly accurate.
Make no mistake: After Americans select the nation's next commander in chief this Tuesday, he'll have a daunting mess on his hands -- whether it's the man promising to seek some badly needed international help to clean it up, or the one who turned his back on so many allies and led us charging straight into it.