Drop the Pretense on Iraq

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

September 19, 2004

The increasing deaths and injuries in Iraq demand explanations and concrete plans to solve the problems, not more pie-in-the-sky statements from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. With more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead and others unable even to enter many cities, this is not a time for pretense.

Cheney's comparisons Thursday between current events in Iraq and the United States' 13-year struggle for a constitution and democratically elected government following the Declaration of Independence are naive, except as a reminder of how hard people will fight to evict foreign troops. Nor is there much evidence to support Bush's claim that Iraq now has a strong prime minister. The president's enthusiasm for elections in January is genuine, but if the security situation stays this bad, meaningful balloting will be impossible.

Iraqis blame U.S. soldiers and Marines for everything that goes wrong, even when troops are nowhere near. When military expeditions do go awry, as happened when a U.S . helicopter fired into a crowded Baghdad street this week and killed more than a dozen civilians, the outrage is palpable.

Insurgents, buoyed by their success in turning cities like Fallouja, Ramadi and Samarra into "no-go" zones for U.S. troops, increased attacks this week even in Baghdad. The unity among common criminals, ex-soldiers in Saddam Hussein's army and Muslims from outside Iraq is ominous. The U.S. cannot declare any kind of victory until its troops or Iraqi security forces can enter all cities. U.S. officials should give a timetable, however rough, to meet that goal.

Also needed is a realistic schedule for training Iraqi security forces. In April, when U.S. forces scrapped plans to assault Fallouja, the Marines announced they would form an all-Iraqi force to restore order in the city. But some Iraqi soldiers wound up working with guerrillas, and last week the Fallouja brigade was dissolved. An attempt to recruit police ended tragically this week when a bomb exploded amid a crowd of Iraqis in line to join up, killing 47 people.

How many Iraqis are envisioned for an army or a police force? How long will training take? How will they be protected during training and afterward? How much will it cost? The administration already has proposed diverting $3.4 billion of the $18.4 billion that Congress authorized last November to rebuild the country to train security forces and provide some jobs. Whether it will be enough is an open question.

It is tempting in a presidential election year to duck hard questions, especially when earlier claims were wrong: Iraqi support for U.S. troops ended quickly; no weapons stockpiles were found; not enough troops were provided to secure the country. But Americans can handle bad news and be patient if leaders explain the goals and how to achieve them. Pretending all is going well when the evidence clearly shows that it isn't erodes confidence in government.