The Bush White House and Ayad Allawi's interim Iraqi government have stuck by their pledge that a national democratic election will take place on Jan. 30. Their message is both an unwavering rebuff to insurgents and an expression of optimism. Which is great. Anyone hoping for brighter days in Iraq wants to see the militants defeated and the people lining up at the polls.
But as the adage goes, hope is not a policy. The odds of pulling off an election any time soon remain daunting, given a minefield of interconnected problems, the nexus of which is the continued absence of basic security. The Bush White House has leaned heavily on the notion that responsibility for Iraq's security should, and will be handed off to the Iraqis themselves as soon as possible -- essential, they say, to "putting an Iraqi face" on the reconstruction. But as the New York Times reports again today, nascent Iraqi security forces continue to wear a visage of fear and chaos.
"The Iraqis are so intimidated," U.S. officials say, "that many are reluctant to show up and do not tell their families where they work; they have yet to receive adequate training or weapons, present a danger to American troops they fight alongside, and are unreliable because of corruption, desertion or infiltration.
"Given the weak performance of Iraqi forces, any major withdrawal of American troops for at least a decade would invite chaos, a senior [Iraq] Interior Ministry official, whose name could not be used, said in an interview last week."
The Bush administration, of course, wouldn't go near a claim like that, and will likely continue to brush aside any criticism of its Iraq policies as pessimistic and out of touch.
A couple weeks ago, New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman -- who's been cautiously hopeful about the dawn of democracy in Iraq but often sharply critical of Bush administration policy there -- argued that the best way to gauge progress was to take the pulse of U.S. boots on the ground.
"Marine officers here maintain that the police are improving," the Times report continues. "In the current military sweep, called Operation Plymouth Rock, an Iraqi SWAT team was given credit for a series of raids that rounded up numerous insurgent suspects. But a different assessment was disclosed in a slide that one of those Marine officers presented at a daily briefing just as 150 new Iraqi police recruits were due to arrive by helicopter at an American base at 9 p.m., or in military parlance, 2100 hours:
"'2100: Clown Car arrives,' the slide said, referring to the helicopters. '2101: Be ready for negligent discharges,' the entry continued, warning of accidental shots from the AK-47's carried by many of the recruits. 'Recommend 'Duck & Cover,' it concluded.
"Lt. Col. Mark Smith, commanding officer of a Marine task force here, said the slide was a product of frustration among marines over the slow pace of training the police. 'You just have to lower your expectations on the timetable on when they're going to get things done,' he said."