Been down so long it looks like up to me

By Tim Grieve

Published February 7, 2005 2:38PM (EST)

George Bush began his State of the Union address last week with a bit of wishful thinking. "As a new Congress gathers," the president said, "all of us in the elected branches of government share a great privilege: We've been placed in office by the votes of the people we serve. And tonight that is a privilege we share with newly-elected leaders of Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territories, Ukraine, and a free and sovereign Iraq."

Newly elected leaders of Iraq? Placed in office by the people they serve? There aren't any of those yet, and there weren't any when Bush spoke. They're still counting the votes in Iraq, and as of this weekend the country's election authorities hadn't released results from the Sunni or Kurd areas north of Baghdad. Why did Bush suggest otherwise? It wasn't just another incident of the president stumbling over his words -- the sentence in question is right there in the prepared text the White House distributed. So could it be that the administration would like the American people to be a little confused about the state of affairs in Iraq? Could it be that we're supposed to think that an election is somehow the same thing as a functioning democracy created in our image?

If that was the goal, the news of the weekend showed just how far the administration's vision is from the reality on the ground in Iraq. The news came on two fronts. First, while the administration and its allies like to sell their wars based on the advances they've brought for women -- even Lt. Gen James Mattis justified his "it's fun to shoot some people" comment by pointing out that the people he's been shooting have abused women in Afghanistan -- the New York Times reports that Shiite clerics will push for an Iraqi constitution that denies women equal rights with men.

Dick Cheney, appearing on Fox News Sunday this weekend, said there's no cause for any "hand-wringing" about religious influence over the Iraqi government because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been "very clear, from the very beginning, that he did not want to play a direct role and doesn't believe clerics should play a direct role in the day-to-day operations of government." But that's a little like saying that gay couples shouldn't be worried that George Bush will prevent them from marrying because he doesn't want to be the guy who passes out marriage licenses at the city clerk's office. You can control the government by running its daily operations, or you can control it by setting its course. A report from Knight Ridder this morning makes it clear that Sistani will at least do the latter: He'll "vet" the candidates for prime minister, Knight Ridder says, and he'll "oversee the drafting of the constitution if he is unhappy with the direction it is taking." That may not be a cause for "hand-wringing" in the White House, but a constitution drafted by Sistani and his fellow clerics isn't likely to be the kind of document Bush will want to hold up when he's selling the transforming power of freedom.

Then there's the reality on the ground. While the White House and much of the media focus on the elections and their aftermath, people keep killing each other in Iraq. The Washington Post reports today that the "public mood" in Iraq seems to be "moving more clearly against the insurgency," and it speaks of a "relative lull" in the violence in Baghdad. Those observations come from the article's first and fourth paragraphs. In between is this: "An attack Sunday on a police station in Mahawil, 50 miles south of Baghdad, left 22 policemen and National Guardsmen and 14 attackers dead, the Associated Press reported. The incident was a bloody end to a day in which at least nine other Iraqis were reported slain, and a U.S. soldier was killed and two others were wounded north of the capital. Four Egyptian engineers were kidnapped and two insurgent groups issued statements threatening to kill an Italian journalist who was taken hostage on Friday."

The Post article went to press too early to get today's news: A car bomb exploded outside the gates of a police facility in Baqubah this morning, killing 15 people and wounding 17. The Associated Press says that many of the dead and injured had come to the facility to seek jobs as policemen.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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